- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 4, 2005

“The Beautiful Country” is a saga of exile, preoccupied with the plight of a young man without a country.

Thematically promising and sometimes stirring, the movie is set in the early 1990s and depicts the odyssey of a Vietnamese-American orphan named Binh, who survives a menacing trek from the Vietnamese countryside to the plains of Texas. There, he is reunited with the father he’s never seen, a disabled and solitary American soldier embodied by Nick Nolte as a kind of heartland Lear.

The director, Hans Petter Moland, is Scandinavian, and so are several key collaborators, notably production designer Karl Juliusson, who appears to have led the accomplished Australian cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh to numerous evocative locations: rural Vietnam, Saigon, a refugee camp in Malaysia, a scurvy freighter bearing illegal aliens to America, New York City’s Chinatown, suburban Houston and wide-open spaces in Texas. The scenic aspects of Binh’s journey are more eloquent than the screenplay, which habitually stalls and drifts between destinations.

Although the movie becomes an English-language production after Binh leaves Vietnam as a fugitive, there is still a language problem, of sorts. Damien Nguyen, who portrays the hero, appears to be a nonprofessional with limited command of either English or film acting technique. Although he is physically distinctive, tall and lean and persuasively feral in ways that suggest a capacity for hardship and survival, it would be more helpful if he also revealed a flair for low cunning and intuitive savvy in treacherous surroundings. The filmmakers are reluctant to abandon the conceit that his innocence is a precious attribute.

Binh has companions: a much younger half-brother called Tam (Dang Quoc Thinh Tran) and a Chinese prostitute called Ling (Ling Bai, the extraordinary leading lady of “Red Corner”), but both are too easy to peg as human cargo likely to be discarded for the sake of melodramatic convenience.

The most impressive cast member is Thi Kim Xuan Chau, who appears as Binh’s mother Mai in the Saigon episodes. She bankrolls the next phase of his journey, so it comes as a rather ungallant surprise when the reunion between Binh and his uncomprehending dad fails to generate a fresh note of urgency about Mai. You remain keenly aware that a self-sacrificing mother must still be a deserving rescue project. Out of sight isn’t necessarily out of mind, even at the movies.

Ling’s attachment to vice leads the filmmakers into a muddle.They trifle with the lewd and dire implications on one hand, then try to romanticize the notion of a hopeless infatuation between Binh and Ling on the other.Evidently, Binh is too proud to invest any of his savings in Ling’s professional services, although she has advanced him $2,000 for boat passage. They remain an unconsummated love match that remains threadbare: virginal country boy and lovelorn, incorrigible hooker.

Tim Roth and Temuera Morrison are shortchanged as rival mercenaries during the sea voyage. Eventually, the only thing Ling Bai is asked to do is apply her lipstick in repetitive mirror shots.Nick Nolte is hemmed in by an infirm, oblivious identity once he makes a belated entrance. Exhaustion seems to overtake the scenario long before the characters reach a final port of call.

**

TITLE: “The Beautiful Country”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor, principally allusions to prostitution)

CREDITS:Directed by Hans Petter Moland. Screenplay by Sabina Murray. Cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh. Production design by Karl Juliusson. Costume design by Anne Pedersen. Music by Zbigniew Preisner. Some dialogue in Vietnamese with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sonyclassics.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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