July 27, 2005
Camera 12 — San Jose
USA / Norway
English / Cantonese / Mandarin / Vietnamese
125 minutes


Beautiful and slow story of a half-American/half-Vietnamese young man who yearns to meet his parents. We’re told happas like this are called “bui doi”. Which made me sing that song from MISS SAIGON, “…conceived in hell, and born in strife!” complete with jazz hands.

He is looked down upon by the full-blooded Vietnamese in his village, and indeed in his entire country. He is played by a newcomer named Damien Nguyen, who has scars on his face and deep eyes. He is quiet and natural. He is scared and tough and sad. It really is quite something to see. His G.I. father’s genes have made him incredibly tall by Vietnamese standards and this makes him a bit more of a freaky outcast than he would otherwise be.

Finding his mother in Saigon is one thing, but finding his father in Texas is quite another. Harrowing stays in refugee camps and crowded conditions in freighters follow. He is bringing his young half-brother with him and this boy makes friends with Ling, a prostitute played by Bai Ling. In real life, Bai Ling plays up her dragon lady sexual predator image in interviews, HBO’s Entourage, and a recent layout in Playboy. She has never been my cup of tea, looks wise. But in this film, when she doesn’t have makeup or glamorous clothes to fall back on, she is stunning. She vamps herself up at night-time, but washes her clothes in a bowl while wearing her one dress in the daytime. She really is compelling and it would be impossible to be Binh (the lead) and not fall completely in love with her. Their relationship doesn’t go where you would expect.

It is great to see Tim Roth again. Please come back more often.

One issue I had, and it’s sort of small, is there is a storm that hits the freighter, and as if to prove how harrowing the journey is, we see what is obviously old footage of a boat going through huge waves. If you watch the credits, you’ll see that this scene was filmed in 1956. So a 2004 film uses archival footage, which is obviously worn down, to show an angry ocean. It took me away for a minute.

On the other hand, there is visually stunning photography the whole way. No matter where we are, it is beautiful. Every country turns out to be “The Beautiful Country”.

The father-son aspect comes to a resolution in a quiet, perfect way. That was the biggest pleasant surprise of the film. The quest of a boy to meet his father is compelling and honestly portrayed here.

There are problems in thif film to be sure. Time passes at different rates. How long was Binh working or in the camp? How long is the boat ride? Why don’t they land in San Francisco or Long Beach? Where does Ling get her makeup? And how do the Asian characters appear to get better at English with each passing sentence they utter? But the good outweighs the bad here.

By the way, I think this film is rated R simply because of one well-known hand gesture. Unbelievable.

7.0 Metacritic


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Written by Michael W. Cummins