THE BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY (Hans Petter Moland). 125 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (August 5). For venues and times, see Movies, page 91. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Although his name comes first in the credits, Nick Nolte doesn't show up onscreen until nearly two hours into The Beautiful Country . It's worth waiting, though, for the closure and resolution his character provides to this absorbing, if soap opera-ish, drama.
The film's real star is Damien Nguyen , who plays Binh, whose half-Vietnamese, half-white American background makes him a social outcast. When his foster family in Vietnam rejects him, the hapless young man finds his mother ( Thi Kim Xuan ) working as a servant in Saigon. She tells him about his father (Nolte), her American husband who abandoned their family during the Vietnam War.
Binh's journey then follows the harrowing trajectory of a high school history movie about valiant Asian boat people: surviving a Malaysian refugee camp, life-threatening trials in the bowels of a ship, slave labour in New York's Chinatown.
What keeps it from drowning in its docudrama clichés are the solid direction and strong performances. Nguyen, besides being believable as Nolte's offspring, suggests the cowed look of a pariah in possession of an almost spiritual dignity.
Tim Roth 's greedy yet melancholy ship captain dominates a few scenes, and Bai Ling , as a woman who buys escape by selling herself, shines throughout, even when mouthing the prostitute's cliché: "I already dead inside."
But it's the grizzled Nolte, in his few minutes of screen time, who delivers the film's wordless money shot that makes this occasionally choppy voyage worth taking.