Generous in spirit and fearlessly observant, The Beautiful Country deserves a place of honor among the great movies portraying emigrant tenacity -- everything from The New Land to Hester Street to the first two Godfather films -- thanks at least in part to the young director's own life story. A Norwegian who was a 16-year-old exchange student in Grosse Point, Michigan, Moland graduated from Boston's Emerson College and worked in New York before his return to Oslo. He has a convincing grip on the emotions that accompany displacement and the courage it takes to cope with mystery and change. Violently uprooted but ever hopeful, Binh sets out on his harsh odyssey with a pluck and openness to experience that should give second thoughts to our own sour nativists and self-appointed civilian border guards. We never see the Statue of Liberty in this film, but we see the meaning of liberty itself.
Sliding down from the back of a water buffalo, Binh makes his way, in 1990, to what used to be Saigon and now is Ho Chi Minh City -- a teeming metropolis that fills him with bafflement. Almost by a miracle, he manages to find his mother (Chau Thi Kim Xuan), who works as a maid in the household of an imperious Vietnamese heiress. He also unearths a little brother, Tam (Tran Dang Quoc Thinh). But there is to be no contentment in Ho Chi Minh City. Forced by a fatal accident to leave, Binh and little Tam board an open boat for the South China Sea and get as far as Malaysia before they're imprisoned in a filthy refugee camp. There, amid people of many nationalities, Binh learns bits of English and becomes friends with a resourceful Chinese girl, Ling (Bai Ling), who slips from the camp at night to work as a streetwalker.
Admirers of the great B. Traven novel The Death Ship will recognize Beautiful Country's gruesome central chapter -- a storm-tossed voyage with hundreds of other emigrants on a decrepit tramp freighter, complete with short rations, fatal diseases, bribery, an on-board slave trader, and an opportunistic captain (Tim Roth). Locked in the hold, the beleaguered, half-starved travelers occupy themselves with touching trivia games, trying to name the TV shows, pro football teams, and pop stars of the nation where they're bound. The United States. But it would be a mistake for American viewers to assume that the "beautiful country" of the title is none but our own. Director Moland's strengths include the vision of a world traveler and a gift for metaphor: In the end, the "beautiful country" is not so much a physical place like America or Vietnam but the dream of contentment, belonging, and peace. To his credit, the filmmaker doesn't put too fine a point on it. Binh's journey may be inward, the progress of a soul, but it takes the apparent form of a harrowing adventure story.
Eventually, he reaches New York -- no bargain destination for boat people. Imprisoned once more (this time in the kitchen of a Chinatown restaurant), Binh gets a taste of America at its worst, but he also glimpses freedom's unexpected possibilities. He has come to love Ling, his Chinese counterpart in survival, but he sees that her crummy job in a squalid karaoke bar may be her deliverance. An American businessman (who at least has the good sense to be ashamed) wants to marry her. Meanwhile, Binh's escape to the American West is full of ambiguous questions but also a frontiersman's sense of hope. His brief encounter with a country club matron in Houston may be the movie's most telling scene, but when he finally comes to ground with a blind man (gritty, weary Nick Nolte) in a house trailer on the windswept Texas prairie, he understands what he's been searching for all along. Without much talk and no bogus sentiment, the boy from Vietnam and the long-lost American begin to enter the magical realm of the title. Many movies seek to thrum our heartstrings, and most do it through cheap emotional tricks and outright manipulation. But because The Beautiful Country earns every deep feeling it engenders in us, it deserves the highest compliment: It's completely authentic.