Very measured in its pacing, but quietly lyrical and ultimately affecting, The Beautiful Country tells the story of the son of an American GI and a Vietnamese woman.
Damien Nguyen, who plays Binh, is called bui doi or "less than dust", a cultural pariah. This neophyte is convincing as a scarred young adult curious to connect to his parents.
Sabina Murray's screenplay doesn't always provide enough explanation or detail, especially when it concerns at least one character's motivations. But her story of a Malaysian refugee camp and illegal immigration of boat people set in 1990 is arduous by way of Saigon (really Ho Chi Minh City), yet intriguing.
Binh will eventually find his mother and much younger half-brother (Tran Dang Quoc Dinh) and will ride on a rusted tanker to end up in slave labor conditions in New York's Chinatown. Along the way he'll meet a congenial Chinese hooker (Bai Ling) who likes karaoke and will become his confidante.
The title is reflected in character's attitudes towards Vietnam and America and Nguyen's etching of someone trying to blend in to find personal meaning in his life ultimately proves rewarding. The Beautiful Country emulates a tiresome, painful journey not without death and misunderstanding over abandonment. Tim Roth shows restraint as a ruthless captain who ferrys human cargo under the watch of Snakehead (Temuera Morrison - Commander Cody in Revenge of the Sith). And Nick Nolte shows an understated warmth as Steve, someone Binh finally comes in touch with near the end in rural Sweetwater, Texas.
The conclusion seems open-ended, but Nolte's top-billing is deceiving, yet welcome for a tall Asian-American whose journey could have been less extreme.