Beautiful Country, The (2005): Boy Searches for his Father, from Vietnam to Texas

This movie’s title, “The Beautiful Country,” is too generic and vague to describe its emotionally compelling tale of a young Vietnamese who embarks on an arduous journey from homeland to Texas in search of his American father.

It’s been a long time since American films have dealt with the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Touching on many of the lasting repercussions of Vietnam and other upheavals in Southeast Asia’s recent history, “Beautiful Country” is a significant reminder of the plight of the Amerasians left behind by American forces in Vietnam; the “boat people” migrations; and the human trafficking and forced indenture of refugees that continues unabated today.

Producers Edward R. Pressman and Terrence Malick (who also conceived the story) took a gamble in hiring Norwegian Hans Petter Moland to direct this saga, though being an immigrant story, the film may have benefited from Moland’s outsider’s perspective. The film’s authenticity derives from its on-location shooting in Hanoi City, Ninh Binh, Nah Trang, Texas, and New York.

Bui doi “less than dust” is a slur aimed at Vietnamese children with American fathers. Set in 1990, “Beautiful Country” relates the odyssey of a young “bui doi” as he escapes Vietnam, endures refugee camp, and survives a brutal ocean crossing and indentured servitude with a trafficking ring. Despite all odds, he manages to keep hope, humanity, and generous spirit as he searches for connection with his long-lost family. His quest leads him from Saigon to Malaysia to New York City and, finally, to a remote Texas ranch and a redemptive reunion.

Binh (Damien Nguyen) has been called bui doi for his entire life. He lives in a village with a foster family that exploits him as labor but barely tolerates his presence. As a full-grown youngster, his unusual height and facial features mark him for contempt. When his foster mother begrudgingly reveals that his birth mother is living in Saigon, Binh packs up his possessions and heads to the city.

His one link to family life, and clue to his mother’s whereabouts, is a photo of a smiling American and a pretty young Vietnamese woman holding a baby, standing in front of a storefront. Showing around this photo, and stoically accepting of rude rebuffs, Binh finally locates a young boy, Tam (Tran Dang Quoc Thinh), who claims to have heard of a tall big brother.

It turns out, their mother Mai (Thi Kim Xuan) is a domestic in the luxurious household of the imperious Mrs. Hoa (Anh Thu), who treats her Western guests graciously but discriminates against her Vietnamese servants. Mai’s tearful embrace is Binh’s first taste of family love.

Mai manages to secure a job for Binh as a houseboy for Mrs. Hoa. Although Mai and Binh must submissively endure the insults, slaps, and harassment of Mrs. Hoa and her equally odious son, it’s a period of bittersweet contentment, as Mai, Binh, and little Tam make a life together. Binh learns that Mai was married in church to his father and that they were happy together, but that he had disappeared without a trace.

When Mrs. Hoa is killed in an accident, Mai knows that Binh will be blamed. She rushes him from the scene, and tells him about a boat that will help him escape. Handing him her life savings, she asks that he take Tam with him to America. Her marriage certificate lists an address for her lost husband in Houston.

Binh and Tam set off in a packed fishing vessel that’s nearly swamped crossing the South China Sea, as part of the infamous “boat people” refugee migration. They survive only to be incarcerated in a Malaysian refugee camp under armed guard, along with other emigrants from Asia. In the polyglot camp, the common language is English, which Binh barely speaks. Chingmy (Chapman To), a cynical young Chinese, befriends the naive Binh and wises him up to the hopelessness of their situationno country wants the refugees, and the only way out costs big money. That kind of money can only be earned the way Ling (Bai Ling) gets it’ she’s allowed to leave the camp at night to work as a streetwalker.

Ling is bitter, but she warms to mother-starved little Tam, and identifies with shy Binh’s feelings of shame and rejection. The tension in the camp explodes, when Chingmy goes berserk, provoking the guards to shoot him. Ling tells Binh about a ship smuggling refugees to America, and selflessly offers the money to pay for the trip, but Binh insists that she accompany them.

Onboard they meet the “Snakehead,” (Temuera Morrison) or human trafficker, who demands extortionate pay far beyond their means. Their choice is overboard, or sign an I.O.U. The transaction is watched by the ship’s world-weary Captain Oh (Tim Roth), whose contempt for “Snakehead” is outweighed by his own financial self-interest in the human cargo. Locked in the freighter’s hold, the emigrants pass the time sitting idly waiting for food, and betting on American trivia like “Q-Tip” and “Route 66.”

The voyage turns yet more desperate, when the ship is slammed by a storm devastating both human and inanimate cargo. Soon, disease sets in among the malnourished refugees. Binh is a survivor, but Tam dies of fever. Finally, the ship reaches the coast outside N.Y. The refugees are hustled by dinghy to shore, loaded into trucks, and transported to a new life of slavery. Binh works as a Chinatown busboy, and Ling is a bar girl in a sleazy joint frequented by white businessmen. Though the emotional bond between Binh and Ling remains strong, Binh can’t stomach the sight of Ling plying her trade.

When Binh learns from his bunkmates that, as the child of an American G.I., he was eligible for free U.S. repatriation and transport, he is overwhelmed with the horror and loss of his journey. He has lost his mother, brother, and lover, but in his desperation he finds freedom from the slavers and escapes.

Binh hitchhikes cross-country, encountering Mexican migrants, amputee vets, random road people. The quest leads to a trailer encampment in the ranch’s backcountry, and the rancher agrees to hire Binh. Binh works with Steve (Nick Nolte), a new workmate and trailer-mate. Like Binh, Steve shows a stoic acceptance of fate.

Steve’s story is slowly revealed. “Bad memories of Vietnam” asks Binh. “Worse,” says Steve, “Good memories.” Binh learns that Steve was wounded in a warehouse ammunition explosion and that he woke up blind in a hospital six months later. At war’s end, nobody could go back to Vietnam, and Steve didn’t want to burden his wife with caring for a blind man. In time, as trust between them grows, they tacitly acknowledge each other as father and son without ever stating the words.

“Beautiful Country” tells the saga of one out of 12,000 to 18,000 of children of American troops and Vietnamese women conceived during that period. The film is more plot than character-drive; by standards of American films, the plot is rich enough for ten pictures. But the details are surprisingly fresh, and the characters vividly drawn. Sabina Murray and Larry Gross’ script eschews melodrama for a more realistic portrait of the hardships endured by illegal immigrants, particularly those from Vietnam.