Video Virgil: Cast Them Out To Sea

I won't mention any names, but the so-called critics who reviewed The Beautiful Country (2004) for the New York Times, Austin Chronicle, and Boston Phoenix should be set adrift on the ocean a long way from land. How can people be so oblivious to others they see everyday - for example, the guys scraping the dishes in the really cool restaurants where really hip movie critics eat lunch?

Pardon the outburst, but I recently suffered through a meeting where several otherwise smart people relieved themselves of the opinion that it's easy to become an American: "Just go shopping and watch the sports channel." To say otherwise - to suggest that immigration is a painful ordeal that involves loss as well as gain - is to violate Section One, Paragraph Two of the 2001 Anti-Anti-Americanism Act, which defines patriotism as voluntary cessation of all cerebral activity.

And, I might add, of all emotional empathy. The Beautiful Country, about the son of a Vietnamese woman and American GI who in 1990 embarks on a journey to find both parents, is not gulity of "sentimental excess." Neither is it a "melodrama" either "earnest" or "shameless." Look up these words, fellow critics. "Sentimental" means indulging in stock, predictable emotion. "Melodrama" means moralistic, black hats and white hats. None of that applies to this film, which deals with a timely and politically loaded topic with rare subtlety, intelligence, and understated humor.

Just to cite one example: When Binh (Damien Nguyen) finally reaches New York and becomes a kind of indentured servant in Chinatown, forced to pay off the exorbitant fee charged for his illegal passage, he learns from a fellow worker that as a dui boi (the term means "low as dust") he could have "flown to America for free" (a reference to the 1988 Amerasian Homecoming Act). Amazed to hear that America actually welcomes people like him, he decides immediately to flee his job and go find his father in Texas. (He has learned his father's whereabouts from his mother, whom he located in Ho Chi Minh City and would have stayed with, had it not been for an incident that forced him to leave.)

By now Binh has evolved from a ragged outcast in a rural village (where he was eking out a Cinderella-like existence with relatives) to a rugged individualist in the classic grain. He has seen corruption and cruelty but has not succumbed to either. He is convincingly (not sentimentally) resourceful, brave, stubborn. So when he is stopped in mid-flight by his boss, a tough character who clearly cannot believe one of his captive workers just walked out on him, Binh (by now a veteran poker player) pulls a major bluff: "I am American citizen now," he says, "I can go where I want."

If this were a melodrama, the boss would drag Binh back and make him pay for such impudence. But this is not a melodrama, so the boss just stands there giving this odd young man a quizzical look. Then with a philosophical (and appreciative) shrug, he says, "Congratulations!" And off Binh goes, to a reunion with his father (Nick Nolte) that is one of the most moving yet unpredictable such scenes I've ever seen.

Rent this beautiful film, and if any of those aesthetically challenged critics should hail you from a leaky raft, my advice is: Let 'em sink.

February 28, 2006 9:33 AM |



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This page contains a single entry by Martha Bayles published on February 28, 2006 9:33 AM.

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