A (too) long and winding road

The Washington PostAugust 19, 2005 

Damien Nguyen, from left, Chau Thi Kim Xuan and Bai Ling face incredible obstacles on their voyage to America.

At its base, "The Beautiful Country" has a powerful story to tell about the dire conditions faced by humans traveling illegally into America's promised land. Its best aspects are the depiction of this world of scoundrels and desperate souls.

But there's also a sickly sweet aspect to the film, with actors such as Tim Roth and Nick Nolte thrown into the cast to appeal to Western audiences and a romantic angle that features all too schematic a match (between a Vietnamese man and a Chinese hooker).

At times, the movie -- directed by Norwegian Hans Petter Moland -- feels like a manufactured Asian "Chocolat," which drives the label "art house movie" even further into mainstream banality.

The child of a Vietnamese mother and an American soldier, Binh (played by newcomer Damien Nguyen) has lived his life as a "less than dust," the popular term for this reviled hybrid.

As a result, Binh, who lives in Vietnam, keeps his eyes in almost perpetual aversion, for he carries the face of the enemy. He yearns to go to the United States to find out why his father left his mother.

It is a movie that moves from one long narrative chapter to another: After finding his estranged mother in Saigon, Binh learns his father lives in Houston. At great risk, in 1990, he escapes his country in an open boat. But circumstances lead him to a Malaysian refugee camp. And then to New York, where he toils in conditions verging on slavery.

These episodes have their strong elements, but they also bog the story down. By the time Binh gets to Houston, it feels as though the movie (clocking in at nearly 2 1/2 hours) spent far too much time getting him there.

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