Binh (Damien Nguyen) is like any other awkward American teenager, circa 1990 — gangly, withdrawn, listens to New Wave, always bumping into things — with one notable exception: He's never stepped foot in America.
That will change in “The Beautiful Country,” director Hans Petter Moland's well-meaning if painfully stilted tale of a young man's call to heritage.
Branded a “bui doi” (“less than dust”) by his fellow villagers, Binh is one of thousands of mixed-race Vietnamese children fathered by American soldiers and left to face a lifetime of spite and stigma when the troops went home. Unwanted and jobless, Binh leaves the rural home of his foster family to find his long-lost birth mother in the city formerly known as Saigon.
Without much ado, Binh does find her, thus beginning a second, more grueling odyssey in which he braves refugee camps, starvation, rough seas and the great American road to find his father, who disappeared without so much as a “Dear Mai” letter all those years ago. With his munchkin little brother (Tran Dang Quoc Thinh) in tow, Binh's rough journey is floodlit by a never-ending assortment of human clichés, including a kind-hearted prostitute (Bai Ling from “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”) and a pitiless human trafficker (Temuera Morrison from “Once Were Warriors”) who tells anybody who'll listen that human beings only look like big dollar signs to him.
Moland — a Norwegian best known for producing the Stellan Skarsgard thriller “Insomnia” (1997) — labors under screenwriter Sabrina Murphy's episodic, rough-shifting script. (When Murphy wants to unload some of Binh's human baggage and move on to the next set piece, she typically just kills someone off — a wholly lazy technique.) Nor does the director boast a particularly light touch for symbolism. When Binh finds himself indentured to New York City gangsters, Molan crudely punctuates the scene with Michael Douglas’ “greed is good” speech from “Wall Street.”
Which happens to be playing on a nearby TV set. That nobody's watching.
Tim Roth (“Reservoir Dogs”) and Nick Nolte (“Hulk”) drop by to spread around some star cred, but Nguyen — who grew up in Orange County, Calif. — holds his own in the starring role. As a full-blooded Vietnamese, he doesn't look remotely Caucasian (which makes us wonder why folks from the old country are able to instantly peg Binh as a bui doi) and his performance is bit overly agreeable at times, but he also brings a sincerity and substance to the role that speaks of real experiences lived, and a beautiful country lost.
The Beautiful Country
Starring: Damien Nguyen, Tim Roth, Nick Nolte, Temuera Morrison
Rating: R (some language and a crude sexual reference) Running time: 125 min.
Playing: Now showing at Harkins Shea 14 in Scottsdale