Anyone who's seen Miss Saigon should have a good idea of the significance of the words "bui doi," the Vietnamese term for the children of Vietnamese mothers and American soldiers. The hit musical translates the phrase as "the dust of life," but Hans Petter Moland's film The Beautiful Country opens with a more direct and brutal version: "lower than dust." The Beautiful Country wastes no time reminiscing about the Vietnam War or exploring this blanket condemnation of a generation of children. Its ambitious continent-hopping agenda mandates an immediate launch into the story of one such pariah, an awkward, shy twentysomething played by first-time film actor Damien Nguyen.
Nyugen's expansive episodic adventure—part hero's quest, part immigrant experience, part simple coming-of-age tale—begins in the Vietnamese countryside, where his foster family barely tolerates him. When he decides to seek out his real mother, he finds her so readily that it's hard to believe he never tried before, but tragedy soon puts him back on the move, this time with his half-brother Tam (also the name of Miss Saigon's bui doi child). Attempting to buy passage to America to seek his father, Nyugen encounters such questionably trustworthy allies as a mercenary freighter captain (Tim Roth), a slave trafficker (Temuera Morrison, a.k.a. Attack Of The Clones' Jango Fett), and most significantly, Chinese hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Bai Ling. Her relationship with Nyugen gives the film an emotional center, but also a glaring weakness: The only language they share is English, which they both speak poorly, so their most revealing moments are delivered in awkward pidgin. Somehow, the tragedy of Nguyen's life of alienation and rejection just doesn't come across when he expresses it as "Other mothers say, 'No play with him, he have face of en'my.'"
Moland shares some of the cinematic spare intensity of co-producer Terrence Malick, at least in his opening and closing sequences. Beautiful Country is a gorgeous film, framed with an eye that makes every country seem beautiful in one way or another. It's probably fitting that the human element seems fragile and flat by comparison, but the contrast leaves Beautiful Country fairly bland. Similarly, it's appropriate that the longsuffering Nyugen buries his motives and feelings, but his controlled, mostly opaque performance makes him into a symbol whose movements audiences can watch rather than a character whose pain they can share. As a result, Beautiful Country is a lovely portrait, but an impersonal, chilly one. Being unwanted and misunderstood hurts, but Moland might have done better to immerse his viewers in that hurt rather than giving them an outsider's distant perspective.