Dir: Hans Petter Moland. Norway/US. 2004. 126 mins.
A beautifully photographed but dramatically clunky saga about a Vietnamese war child's journey to rejoin his father in America, Beautiful Country is as much Terence Malick's film as it is that of Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland. Malick wrote the treatment, co-produced and invited Moland to take on the Murray-Gross screenplay after seeing his last film, the Norway-to-Scotland road movie Aberdeen. Moland has probably done as good a job as anyone could with the script, which is inconsistent, overlong and begins to push the melodramatic buttons too early. But the presence of Roth and Nolte in brief but significant roles, and the psychological reassurance in these troubled times of the good old America Equals Promised Land formula, will help Sony Pictures Classics push this visually lush movie at the glossier end of the arthouse spectrum in the States after its Berlin competition premiere. Outside of the US, Beautiful Country may run out of steam sooner that distributors would like, and move on to only modest auxiliary takings.
Binh is a tall and really rather striking Vietnamese hulk who nevertheless, as the son of an American GI father and a Vietnamese mother, is considered to be ugly and 'less than dust' in his homeland, as he has the face of the enemy. Treated like a Cinderella slave by his rural foster family, he runs away and heads for Ho Chi Minh City, where he tracks down his absentee mother with remarkable ease. She's a servant in a rich household full of cardboard baddies, who seem to exist purely in order to demonstrate that commies can be capitalist pigs too.
After an unfortunate accident, Binh is forced to leave his mother and flee Vietnam with his four-year-old half brother, Tam: and it is at this point that his refugee odyssey begins. All Binh has of his father is a single photograph, all that he knows about him is that he disappeared one day in 1970 soon after Binh was born, that he came from Texas, and that he has big feet.
Considering it is such a big story, a lot of Beautiful Country is curiously undeveloped. There's no explanation of why Binh's mother abandoned him, no explanation of where Binh learned the English he starts speaking in the refugee camp (it's the standard verbless form of movie gook-talk: 'What this place'' 'This place hell') and no real frisson or gel in the relationship that begins to build between Binh and Chinese hooker-with-a-heart Ling (Bai Ling), first in the refugee camp and then on the rusting hulk that is to take Binh, Ling, Tam and a sweating, fighting, hungry cargo of other Asian refugees to America.
There are some factual niggles too: the 'boat people' refugee camp of Pulau Bidong was overseen by the UN and the Red Cross, yet here it is is presented as a Malaysian-run gulag in the jungle; and it is absurd to think that gnarled and bitter ship's captain Tim Roth and his crew of traffickers would sail their human cargo all the way around Africa to New York, rather than heading straight across the Pacific to California. Or perhaps they used the Panama Canal'
But there is a big emotional sweep to the exercise that overcomes such quibbles, and compensates for the longueurs of a film that would benefit from losing at least 20 minutes. An admirably lush widescreen look has been squeezed out of a meagre $5m budget, and there is a neat cyclic element to cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh's landscape work, which takes us from the verdant paddies and mountains of rural Vietnam to the wide open vistas of the Texas ranch country.
This final section - which of course features the long-anticipated reunion of Binh with his father (Nick Nolte) - is finely managed on all levels, and reconciles us to the qualities of this flawed attempt to make the big refugee melodrama that Michael Winterbottom's In This World so convincingly wasn't.
Production cos: Dinamo Story, Sunflower Productions
International sales: Content International
Producers: Petter J Borgli, Edward R. Pressman, Tomas Backstrom, Terence Malick
Screenplay: Sabina Murray, Larry Gross
Cinematography: Stuart Dryburgh
Production design: Kalli Juliusson
Editor: Wibecke Ronseth
Music: Zbigniew Preisner
Main cast: Damien Nguyen, Bai Ling, Tran Dang Quoc Thinh, Tim Roth, Nick Nolte