The drama of refugeeism may be the modern globe’s most pervasive social crisis, but movies are just beginning to probe the experience, tragic as it is but also thick with subterfuge, escape suspense, and borderland anxiety. Michael Winterbottom’s semi-doc In This World applied a cool, unmanipulative verité to the dynamic; relatively, Hans Petter Moland’s
The Beautiful Country is the well-meaning Roland Joffe take, plot-heavy, simplistic, and telegraphic. Sabina Murray’s screenplay certainly loads the dice: Binh (Damien Nguyen), a young half-American, half-Vietnamese outcast in search of his parents, a contrivance-choked journey that leads eventually to the lowlands of Texas. Mere economic necessity isn’t motivation enough, apparently—for good measure, he’s also on the run from a preposterous accidental death. Meanwhile, Binh seems more like a nearly mute signifier of American-Vietnamese commingling than a character, even as he struggles for survival in the hull of a rusty freighter manned by refugee-runner Temuera Morrison and cynical captain Tim Roth.
Co-produced by Terrence Malick, The Beautiful Country
has a beguiling visual sense—Moland is adept at perspectival compositions and earthscapes—and is rich in obvious ironies (the onboard starvation vs. the U.S. Chinatown restaurant’s waste of food). But the storytelling regularly seizes up around what are intended as emotional peaks; a mid-Pacific tragedy amounts to an appalling, tear-jerking swing at the bleachers, complete with cheesy Asian flutes. Binh’s reactions, for the most part, are nonreactions, even if Nguyen turns out to be a thoroughly arresting camera subject. Roth’s cool, mercenary seaman shouldn’t steal the movie from its essential priorities, but he does—a mistake Winterbottom didn’t make. That Murray’s narrative does click comfortably into place can either be satisfying or irritating, depending on your ethical baseline; either way, the Lone Star denouement maintains a lovely sadness. If Moland’s movie scores big, though, it’s for sympathetically spending time where U.S. media generally fear to tread, from the ersatz hut built onto a Saigon staircase where Binh’s mother lives to the ship’s dark belly filled with starving Asians. Maybe hammer-sculpting the refugee template into novelistic entertainment is the only way to get Americans to notice.
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