“I’ve been to your country,” Captain Oh (Tim Roth) tells Binh (Damien Nguyen). “Both of your countries. You will always be out of place wherever you go. And poor.” Damien nods and bows his head, used to being called ugly, different, and doomed. In rural Vietnam, where he has grown up, he is called “bin duh” (translating as “less than dust”). Alone and afraid, he is also determined.
Binh is caught between times and places, son of a Vietnamese mother he has never known and a long-gone American G.I., literally standing out (too tall) among his Vietnamese fellows, decried for having “the face of the enemy.” In 1990, as Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland’s The Beautiful Country begins, he has developed precise skills (fishing by hand) and survival instincts (nodding and bowing his head when confronted). On learning that his mother, Mai (Bui Anh Tan), works in the big city, Binh leaves his skeptical foster parents and rides his bike to Saigon. Here he finds Mai, essentially indentured to a wealthy family, enduring Mrs. Hoa’s (Anh Thu) verbal insults and her son’s (Khuong Duc Thuan) sexual abuse. When Mai arranges for Binh to work as a houseboy, he’s at once horrified, embarrassed, and paralyzed by the son’s flagrant license.
Here, as elsewhere, the film shows Binh’s experience in lyrical, subtle, often extraordinary imagery (often recalling the work of the film’s producer, Terrence Malick). As Binh scrubs the foyer floor, Stuart Dryburgh’s camera shoots at a sharp angle, looking across the room from his scrub brush up to his mother, standing to dust a table. The son walks between them, cutting across the space as he approaches Mai, initially appearing only as feet — Binh’s head-down view, then fully in frame by the time he casually and cruelly grabs at Mai’s bottom.
When a sudden and too opportune accident forces Binh to leave his mother, she sends him with her much younger son by Hoa, Tam (Tran Dang Quoc Thinh), to find Binh’s father. The two get on boat bound for “America,” equipped with only a bit of cash and Mai’s marriage certificate, which has scribbled on the back the Houston, Texas address of the nearly mythic G.I., Steve. Less hopeful than desperate, Binh decides to believe the stories he’s heard, that America is a beautiful country, and that he will be able to support himself and his half-brother once they arrive.
Of course, they can have no idea of the hardships entailed in this journey. Their boat lands them on the shores of Malaysia, where they’re locked up in a refugee camp, again between places, lost in a legal limbo, without control of their fates. Here Tam befriends a scrappy Chinese prostitute, Ling (Bai Ling), whose own unhappy existence and perpetual desire provide Binh with a predictable conflict: he yearns for her, wants to save her, and also feels shame for her, as he watches her traipse, red-lipped and mini-skirted, from the guards’ barracks back to her bunk with the rest of the refugees.
Their eventual escape and transport on Captain Oh’s ship exposes still more of the hypocrisies that order the refugees’ world. They huddle in the hold, starving amid filth and stormy disarray, advised that they should stay healthy, in order to earn the transporter (Temuera Morrison) top dollar (“You’ll all be rich in America,” he lies). With nothing but time and desperate hope on their hands, the wage contests for water and wormy rice, based on the ability to list U.S. products: Clint Eastwood, NBA, and Folgers coffee. For most of the journey, Binh observes, trying to remain unseen and out of danger; when pressed to his utter limit by a dreadful turn of events, he reveals himself: he knows the names of more products than anyone, spitting them with aggressive contempt rather than expectation.
Having signed papers that consign them to work off their passage once they arrive in New York City, the new illegal immigrants follow strict routines: Binh again keeps his head down as he shuffles from his Chinatown restaurant job (where he throws out platefuls of uneaten food) to his underground bunk every night, while Ling sings at a karaoke bar, turning tricks with odious, brash Caucasians in suits. Again, Binh’s inclined to rescue her, but she feels so lost at this point that she can only reject his affection. “I’m ugly too,” she says, as they stand surrounded by NYC traffic, her fake leather fringe jacket and gaudy jewelry flashing in the neon lights.
Despondent, Binh plays cards with his bunkmates, the tv in the background conveniently running Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good” speech at the very moment they let slip that Binh actually has legal rights as a child of a U.S. soldier. That is, he came by way of the horrific ship voyage when he would have been afforded free air transport to the States (owing to the 1984 Amerasian repatriation program, and then, the 1988 Amerasian Homecoming Act, which formalized immigration and provided acclimation programs in the U.S.). It’s a stunning, depressing discovery, that he has been so easily exploited, at any number of moments over the past months. And yet, Binh is also coming to understand this Western capitalism: humans are property, in war and in peace.
The frustration gets him moving again, catching a couple of emblematic rides. The first is with a group of Vietnam war veterans, all amputees (“What you lookin’ at boy?” comes the initial challenge, until Binh assures him that he’s seen many people without limbs. The second offers another way of thinking about race, racism, and the status of immigrants. A truck pulls over, and the Mexican driver peers out at him: “I thought you were Mexican,” he says. “Ah what the hell, get in.”
At once metaphorical and brutal, Binh’s long-anticipated reunion with Steve (Nick Nolte) offers only rational reasons for the father’s abandonment. Binh may or may not forgive him, but the more daunting effect is visible in their long pauses — and Steve’s brief, pained fingering of his son’s “ugly” face. They’re both seeking, both enduring the continuing costs of war — the Vietnam war in particular, others certainly. Literally blind, Steve embodies U.S. lapses and longings, political and moral missteps, and the guilt that drives and undermines all efforts to do right.