While we are engaged in yet another intrusive ill-advised war, the time is right for the release of a story that reminds us of the lingering malignant consequences of the equally intrusive war in Vietnam. For those who falsely believe that a war is over with the signing of a declaration and the evacuation of troops this magnificently poignant film will be an eye opener. And for those who are aware of the broken families and bitter scars of war marking those who fought on both sides, the story will find a different response - one of memory of pain, regret, and wonder at the tale of just one survivor.
Binh (Damien Nguyen) is a half-breed, his mother a Vietnamese and his father an American soldier, and as such is has no country: he doesn't belong and lives as an outcast. His struggle for life leads to his departing his village in Vietnam for Saigon where he reconnects with his estranged mother Mai (Thi Kim Xuan Chau) and his very young half brother Tam (Dang Quoc Thinh Tran) who works as a servant in an abusive wealthy Vietnamese household. The reunion is touching and Binh joins his mother on the staff as a servant. An unfortunate accident occurs forcing Binh to flee to America, his young brother Tam accompanying him at Mai's insistence: Mai sees America as the beautiful country where her sons will find their father in Houston, Texas and have a new life.
The bulk of the film is the treacherous journey of Binh and Tam along with Ling (Ling Bai) a Chinese girl who befriends them. They survive a detention camp in Malaysia, a doomed boat trip, and a long journey aboard a filthy human trafficking ship whose Captain Oh (Tim Roth) monitors their survival (except for Tam who succumbs to fever) and ultimately releases them into the waters along New York. Binh and Ling survive in Chinatown in New York in the most menial of jobs, again surviving abuse in the land of promise. Eventually Binh travels to Texas for a reunion with his biological father (Nick Nolte) and even that reunion is marked by the permanent scars the war has left on the survivors.
Through all of the incomprehensible hardships Binh is marked with a spirit of survival that pays homage to the human soul's ability to sustain life through hope. The message is powerful and for once is not cosmetically altered by the writers or the director or the fine cast. Damien Nguyen and Ling Bai are outstanding and the cameo roles are all superb. This is an epic film, not a pretty one, but a film about the pity of war, one that pleads the case against war in simply recalling the disastrous after effects that many choose to forget. And it is a story of the triumph of the human spirit. If we are to ever understand the pity of war and the inhumanity of war, we must be aware of the sequelae. Highly recommended on every level. Grady Harp.
The Beautiful Country.