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Photograph by Roland Neven/courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Rainmakers: Damien Nguyen and Bai Ling play lovers in 'The Beautiful Country.'

Viet Vision

A half-American immigrant, scorned in his native Vietnam, dreams of selling shoes in 'The Beautiful Country'

By Richard von Busack

SOME MOVIES are studiously based on movies one once loved, and yet they just don't have the same effect as the original. The Beautiful Country, by the Norse filmmaker Hans Petter Moland (Aberdeen), is a widescreen exercise in dour Americana. It fits in the tradition of Wim Wenders and Terrence Malick, the latter of whom co-produced The Beautiful Country.

The film has the scope of a 500-page novel. But it is the kind of scope that leaves viewers hollow-eyed and numb, asking themselves, "What the hell is going to happen next?" Set in 1990, the story follows the ordeals of Binh (Damien Nguyen), the son of an American soldier. Because of his mixed parentage, he fights prejudice in his native Vietnam—he's called "pig face" and bui doi ("less than dust").

Binh has a tall sturdy frame and a jagged scar above his lip, as symbolic as the lightning bolt on Harry Potter's forehead. Moland gives him a trick of good luck—Binh is always discovering something to eat, a fish or a coconut. But he doesn't have craftiness that goes with his luck. He longs to be a shoe salesman.

Together with his little half-brother, Tam (Tran Dang Quoc Thinh), he travels from the depths of Saigon (actually Hanoi) to the Malaysian refugee camps. After a riot, he escapes on a storm-wracked sea journey aboard a human-smuggler's hell ship. Eventually, he serves, slavelike, as a delivery boy in New York's Chinatown. In the fullness of time, Binh gets to see the land of his dreams. Another disappointment: It's all junkyards and underpasses and haughty, cop-haunted suburbs on the outskirts of Houston. And the skyscrapers in the distance are about as welcoming as downtown Mordor.

This scope of The Beautiful Country may grant it success as an Asian version of European immigrant sagas, such as The Godfather: Part II or Days of Heaven. But the film trudges, lacking juice and entertainment. The Malick influence makes the film slack and vaguely depressing. The immigrant's disappointment sets in early, and The Beautiful Country hardens like concrete. It unwinds in silences and gives way to an echoing, self-consciously mythic finale in a golden prairie field in Texas.

The photography by Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano) is a plus. No one could accuse a Malickian movie of being either ugly—or too pretty. There's a luscious beach full of coco palms where the immigrants stand for a moment's respite before the Malaysian border police capture them. The towering rocks and rice paddies of rural Vietnam are interrupted by a jolt of modern life: a motor scooter swerves past between the farmers, blasting Lene Lovich's "Lucky Number" on the radio.

Moland is not naive about America. He spent a total of 10 years here. Still, like most Scandinavian directors, he is a reiterator. Whenever Moland colors a scene with meaning, he gives it three coats. Worse, he doesn't have the blunt, earthy humor that keeps Scandinavian cinema fresh.

Moland's screenwriter, novelist Sabina Murray, seems to have picked up all the archetypes from the screenwriting courses. Every gesture is meant to be small-movie intimate, contrasted against big-movie star cameos. Nick Nolte, representing America, is a blinded, forgetful giant of a cowboy. Binh's lover, Ling (Bai Ling), is a north Chinese girl who had dreams of becoming a singer. Instead, she drifts into courtesanship—she is always applying lipstick, to demonstrate to us the pathos of the false face she must wear.

Tim Roth brings in a little touch of Joseph Conrad as a seagoing human-smuggler, as corroded with guilt as his boat is corroded by rust. Roth has shaped his part to be larger than the surroundings, and the movie starts to get lively when he is around. Then his Capt. Oh becomes bad-novel gnomic. He tells Binh, "You'll always be an outsider—and poor. I offer you a new life, and you choose the old dream!"

For all of The Beautiful Country's fastidious sharpening of plot points, the director doesn't notice how the film's acting styles fail to harmonize. In a looser or more vivid epic, that would be forgivable. In a two-hour-plus movie, meant as a kind of cinematic tone poem, it's distracting. The dry significance of Nolte's man of few words doesn't match the almost batty soap-opera emoting of Binh's mother (Chau Thi Kim Xuan).

In any case, the guest-star performances orbit around the lead performance, and there's the rub. Nguyen's Binh has openhearted peasant innocence that never existed anywhere but on a soundstage. He's an untried actor trying to hold together a rambling piece of cinema, and it's not quite his fault that he fails. There is human truth in melodrama, but when such a story is acted with truth, it never seems like melodrama. Binh's knack for self-preservation never goes beyond bounds; he's always as decent as a Horatio Alger hero.

Watching Binh's story is like being a child listening to the immigration ordeals of the parents. The child is restless hearing such reminiscences. It's not just because of the guilt such stories peg on him, though that's certainly part of the discomfort. He's really restless because he can sense that he's not getting the whole story.

The Beautiful Country (Unrated; 125 min.), directed by Hans Petter Moland, written by Sabina Murray and Lingard Jervey, photographed by Stuart Dryburgh and starring Damien Nguyen, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the July 13-19, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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