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The Beautiful Countries

Moments of beauty burst forth even from the most desolate of situations and environments. Such is the case in the film The Beautiful Country (2004), directed by Hans Petter Moland. Taking place in 1990, it is the touching story of a young Vietnamese man named Binh who was raised as an orphan in Vietnam. Binh embarks on an arduous journey to find his birth father, an American G.I., who left Binh's mother when Binh was just a baby. A beaten down Binh decides to reunite with his past - to first find his mother and then his father. Throughout his exhaustive journey from Saigon to New York to Texas, Binh encounters impossible hardships. But his plight is not without beauty - small moments of touching beauty that move the viewer and stay with him or her long after the film is over.

Vietnam - It's a Beautiful Country

Part of The Beautiful Country is filmed on location in Vietnam. "Vietnam. It's a beautiful country," says Binh's father at the end of the film. Indeed it is. Director Moland did a splendid job of revealing this beauty to the audience. The Vietnam landscape blooms: the luscious green countryside, the quiet serenity of fishing in the river, and lanterns floating across the night sky. It is among this beauty that Binh's life comes into stark contrast. As an outcast, he wants to find his roots - to know his mother and father. All Binh has is a photograph (a potent motif throughout the film) of his mother Mai holding him as a baby standing alongside his father in front of the barbershop where Mai worked. After being thrown out of the house he lives in, Binh sets off to Saigon to find his mother. His journey to find his past has begun.

Binh experiences moments of beauty in Saigon despite the harsh realities of his mother's life. Binh meets his younger half brother, Tam, for the first time when Tam recognizes Binh as his brother from a photo. Then, in a touching scene, Binh and his mother are reunited at last. Mother and son embrace for what seems an eternity symbolizing the many lost years between them. It is a powerful and truly beautiful moment.

Binh learns more about his father from Mai, including that he lives in Texas. In another memorable moment, Mai tells Binh that she is proud of him. Binh now has the fuel he needs for the next segment of his journey. After a deadly accident at his mother's place of employment, Mai sends Binh and Tam off to America so that they will not wrongfully face the consequences of the death of Mai's boss. Binh and Tam set off together for America.

On the way, Binh and Tam meet Ling, a beautiful Chinese prostitute, at a harsh refugee camp in Malaysia. Binh falls in love with Ling but is conflicted about her prostitution.

Binh, Tam, and Ling make it onto a boat, filled with other hopeful immigrants, which will take them to America. In America, they will work as "slaves" to pay off their travel debt.

On board, there exist many hardships including sickness, storms, lack of food and water, greed, corruption, and death. Binh's and Ling's love blooms - the only thing of beauty on the boat besides Binh's and Tam's deepening relationship as brothers. But this is cut short when Tam gets sick and dies. Binh is forced to bury him at sea. Tam's death spurs Binh on even more. He fights for the memory of Tam, for Ling, and for the dream of finding his father. Even when Captain Oh chides Binh for wanting to go to America - for choosing "an old dream," Binh does not falter in his decision. Such persistence in the face of great obstacles is one of the most fascinating and electrifying aspects of Binh's personality.

America - It's a Beautiful Country

"America. It's a beautiful country." Both Binh and Ling say this about America in the second half of the film. When Binh arrives in New York City, he works to pay off his debts in Chinatown. Ling sings in a sleazy nightclub as she tries to carve out a life for herself in the United States. As Binh and Ling drift apart, Binh's resolve to forge ahead on his quest to find his father strengthens. He leaves New York after finding out he could have flown to America as his father is an American G.I. Angered, Binh journeys to Texas.

When Binh and his father finally reunite on a ranch in Sweet water, it is a moment of great beauty. At first it is awkward as Cole is a blind, destitute rancher living in a rundown trailer. Eventually, the ice breaks and real communication begins. Cole does not know Binh is his son yet. Cole explains why he left Vietnam (he was blinded in combat), and that he was not allowed to go back to Vietnam. He also did not want to burden Mai with his blindness.

Binh talks about his mother saying she is very beautiful - "like cranes flying at sunset." Cole feels Binh's face. He realizes Binh is his son. At the end, Cole says "Yes, like cranes flying at sunset." Cole acknowledges that Binh is his son. Binh has his father at last, after all the hardships and after so many years have past. One cannot easily forget the intense beauty and emotional release at this moment.

The Beautiful Country is a superbly written and directed film with stunning cinematography of both Vietnam and America. The inner beauty of the characters, their stories, hardships, and their truths shine through due to the strong performances of Damien Nguyen (Binh), Steve Cole (Nick Nolte), Bai Ling (Ling), and Tim Roth (Captain Oh). The viewer cannot help but be moved by the story of these immigrants coming to America in hopes of a better life. The audience also comes to understand, through this personal story, just how far-reaching the effects of the Vietnam War are on all of us, even decades later.

The Beautiful Countries

Binh and his father are key symbols in the film. Binh represents Vietnam. Cole represents America. Binh and his father are "so apart yet so together" in the words of screenwriter Sabina Murray. Just like father and son have been separated by the ravages of war, so too have these two countries - these two beautiful countries. Binh and his father come together at the end of the film representing Vietnam and America healing after war. The coming together of father and son, of Vietnam and America, is one of the strongest elements of beauty in this film.

Perhaps the most beautiful part of The Beautiful Country is the growth and character arc of Binh throughout the film. He goes from a beaten down, mistreated outcast with little self esteem to a confident young man who has found a place for himself. He has found his father, his roots, and his past. Binh can now look towards his future. He can make a new life for himself in this beautiful country.

* * *

Review of:

The Beautiful Country. Dir. Hans Petter Moland. With Nick Nolte, Thu Ahn, Tim Roth, Ling Bai, and Damien Nguyen. Sony Pictures, 2004.

* * * * *

Published on 7/19/06

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