Screens The face of the enemy

A young Vietnamese in search of his GI father becomes an emissary for reconciliation in The Beautiful Country

The release of The Beautiful Country could not be better-timed. The 2004 tale of a young Vietnamese man's search for his GI father touches poignantly on two current hot-button issues: military occupation of a country with a strong guerilla resistance, and the plight of immigrants in America. And while it makes no attempt to prescribe solutions, it reminds the viewer that behind the faces we see at day-labor sites or on news reports about deportation, are individuals who have persisted against unimaginable odds.

Ling, a Chinese refugee, aids Binh, a Vietnamese man in search of the American father who disappeared after the war in The Beautiful Country.

The Beautiful Country also contains a cautionary message about sex in a war zone. Even if it's consensual, someone will read it as an act of aggression and it's seldom the soldier who suffers. Binh (Nguyen), the story's protagonist, has been an ugly duckling his entire short life, his tall, rangy build and chiseled features betraying his absentee father's identity. Other children were forbidden to play with him, we learn, because he had the "face of the enemy." A brief scene of Binh ducking his way through a market over which he towers tells us that despite his painfully self-effacing demeanor he cannot escape notice or scorn. His foster mother's impending marriage pushes Binh to seek his birth mother, who he has not seen since he was a baby. Their brief, happy reunion, is interrupted by prejudice and tragedy, and Binh soon finds himself on a boat to America, charged with the well-being of his young half-brother. In exchange for passage, he and his fellow passengers have agreed to indentured servitude upon arrival in New York.

The Beautiful Country

Dir. Hans Petter Moland; writ. Sabina Murray, Lingard Jervey; feat. Nick Nolte, Damien Nguyen, Ling Bai, Thi Kim Xuan Chau, Tim Roth (R)

The hardship of Binh's new life - sleeping in shifts on a cot in a virtual human warehouse, working for peanuts at menial jobs - is nothing compared to the difficulty of life back home, and Binh persists in believing that America is the "beautiful country." The rough scars left on the psyches of both countries are apparent in Binh's long-lost father, Steve (Nolte), who holds the same opinion of Vietnam. An aging, barely employable veteran, Nolte is not so enamored of his homeland. Bad memories of Vietnam? Binh asks Steve. "Worse," he replies. "I have good memories."

As Binh recreates a family from the pieces that are left, it is important to him that Steve and his mother were married, but even that memento of true love is tarnished by the fact that Steve had a wife back in the states, a still-mourning Houston matron who nonetheless points Binh in the right direction.

The Beautiful Country is almost unbearably claustrophobic, dark, and heartbreaking until Binh reaches the wide-open roads of Texas, where he is assisted by Vietnam Vet amputees on a weekend hunting trip - for whom giving the young Vietnamese a lift is a deeply symbolic act - and a Chicano family. "I thought you were Mexican," the man laughs, but gives Binh a ride anyway. It's not the kind of story the Convention & Visitors Bureau is likely to promote, but it made me feel proud to be a Texan.

By Elaine Wolff

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