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 confectionary 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. Living in deplorable conditions, he becomes friendly with Ling (Bai Ling), who plies her trade as a prostitute to earn enough to bribe her way out of the camp.
In the hokiest of cliches, they escape when a convenient riot takes place. Binh and Ling suffer a miserable passage on a crowded ship to New York under the thumb of Captain Oh (Roth) and a human-smuggling businessman (Temuera Morrison). And Binh has a long spell in New York working as a virtual slave in Chinatown before he makes that inevitable trip to Texas. These episodes have their strong elements, but they also bog the story down, despite screenwriter Sabina Murray's desperate attempts to shorten everything with ellipses. By the time Binh gets to Houston, it feels as if the movie (clocking in at almost 21/2 hours) spent too much time getting him there.
THE BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY (R, 137 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, sexual situations and some violence. Mostly in English; some scenes in Vietnamese with subtitles. At Cinema Arts Theatre and Cineplex Odeon Shirlington.