FINDING BEAUTY: Damien Nguyen.
While the mass exodus from Saigon signaled the end of the Vietnam War for most Americans, some of the cruelest injuries are still being inflicted 30 years after the fact. For the half-Vietnamese, half-American children many G.I.s left behind, the war is something they are forced to carry in every part of themselves, from their faces to their blood. Often ostracized and despised by their countrymen, these now-grown children still feel the sting of American military intervention all these years later.
Just such a child — grown to a broken sort of manhood — is the subject of the new film “The Beautiful Country” by Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland. A lovely and often heartbreaking tale of the lengths we will go to in search of where we belong, it’s a sort of poem to a cruel and mostly forgotten tragedy of the Vietnam War.
Damien Nguyen plays Binh, the son of an American G.I. and a Saigon hairdresser who’s sent to live with his cruel relatives in a remote village soon after his birth. It’s easy to see that Binh is a crushed soul from the moment we meet him — prone to never looking anyone in the eye and to long, timid pauses before he speaks. Soon after his 17th birthday, Binh goes to Saigon to find his mother. Reunited with her, he finds work in the household where she labors as a maid. After an altercation with the lady of the house ends in tragedy, however, Binh’s mother gives him a roll of American money, her marriage certificate to his G.I. father, and the only thing she knows about the man who apparently abandoned them years before: an address in Houston. From there — soon with the help of a Chinese prostitute named Ling (Bai Ling) — Binh sets off for America by way of a Malaysian refugee camp, a corruption-ridden freighter ferrying Chinese refugees, and a human warehouse in New York City, a labor factory that’s nearly a prison for its illegal inhabitants.
Though the beginning of “The Beautiful Country” is slow and nearly too sad to watch, it’s never a boring film, full of interesting characters (like the morally conflicted captain of the freighter, played by Tim Roth) and wrenchingly gorgeous cinematography.
It is not until Binh gets to New York, however, that his character finally begins to gain the strength the viewer has been rooting for through the entire movie. Once that happens — with him at last setting out for Texas in an attempt to track down his father and answers — the film picks up a nice momentum and finally gains a cohesion that earlier scenes had lacked.
“The Beautiful Country” is a lovely little film, one that speaks more about what we need as human beings than the heavier political questions of the Vietnam War. While the main character is emotionally frozen through much of the film — a quality that put me off a bit — when he does get warmed up in the last reel, it makes for a cheery glow indeed.
— By David Koon
Ingmar Bergman has been one of the giants in foreign cinema for over half a century now, creating such timeless films as “The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries.” He has finally announced his retirement as a film auteur with his latest project, “Saraband.”
While “Saraband” has the touch of a craftsman with decades of experience at his fingertips, it is nevertheless a boring film. Like an old man (genius though he may be) rambling off tall tales, this film is so unpalatable that one wonders whether Bergman even knows what he’s talking about anymore.
Actually, “Saraband” itself is a drama about the effects of age — the richness and introspection that comes with it, but also its proclivity for bitterness. The story borrows its two main characters, Johan and Marianne, from Bergman’s 1973 television series, “Scenes from a Marriage,” set 30 years later. The time gap between the two stories has created two sets of characters with such starkly different qualities.
The film begins with Marianne (Liv Ullman) deciding to visit her ex-husband Johan (Erland Josephson) in his country villa and to give herself a chance to reevaluate her life now that she is approaching 70. Living with Johan is his son Henrik and granddaughter Karin, who are mourning the loss of their beloved wife/mother, Anna. As the story progresses, Johan and Henrik must deal with their enmity toward one another, while allowing the younger generations to live their own lives free of the guilt of their parents.
In the seclusion of the wilderness, lives are so closely intertwined that friction is inevitable, and the weight of their lives suffocates each other. Henrik substitutes his granddaughter for his lost wife and takes to giving Karin laborious cello lessons — and even goes so far as to share a bed with her.
The title of the film is taken from a type of erotic dance accompanied by music, which Karin attempts to master throughout the film, with mixed results due to her grandfather’s overbearing attachment. One of the key quotes from the film is the truism that says all great relationships are built on friendship and a powerful eroticism — the very fine line that all the characters find themselves balancing on.
Although Bergman has made a lifetime of unique films, “Saraband” will only be worthy of recognition only for being his last. Even with all its poetic insight into the guilt and mutual punishment of familial life, it trips over itself with its overreaching drama. Bergman films have always been hypnotically dramatic in this sense, but this film fails to reach the heights of a classic.
— By Dustin Allen
Going for the gold
There is, for better or for worse, a knee-jerk reaction of pity on the part of most Americans when they see a disabled person. It doesn’t matter if said American weighs 275 pounds at 5 feet, 4 inches, smokes a pack a day, and thinks “snack cake” is a food group — if you can’t walk, talk, see, hear, move and think like everybody else, our society tends to categorize you as damaged goods, useful only for helping Jerry Lewis rake in donations every year during his telethon.
One film that should blow away those misconceptions is the stellar new documentary “Murderball,” starting this week at Market Street Cinema. Following the trials and travails of the U.S. Quadriplegic Rugby Team and its adrenaline-junkie members as they strive for gold at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, it’s a brilliant piece of work, one that shows that disabled folk can be just as competitive, brutal, jealous, sexual, ambitious and active as the rest of us (or, in this case, more of all of the above than most of us). It’s a wake-up call for both the public at large and any disabled person who ever felt less than useful in a society that often leaves them out.
Like most of you out there, I had never seen a quad rugby game. It’s a sight to behold: young men, most of them with only partial use of their arms, strap into armored wheelchairs and go at a kind of hybrid soccer/football on a basketball court. It’s not nicknamed “Murderball” for nothing. Played without pads or helmets, the game features collisions often violent enough to send several players crashing to the floor in a heap of flesh and metal. Most of their wheelchairs — $4,000 custom jobs with steel discs for wheels and frames ringed with sheet-metal bumpers — look like they’ve been dropped off a skyscraper.
As cool as quad rugby is to watch, it’s the off-court action that makes “Murderball” more than a sports documentary. The young players spotlighted in the film are frank, funny and open about every aspect of their lives, from using the pity factor to snag women, to the drive to learn how to masturbate again after their accidents, to the frustration of being a new quadriplegic (some of the most moving scenes in the film are of paralyzed and amputee soldiers at Walter Reed Army Hospital, vets of the Iraq war, invited to an exhibition quad rugby game). It is how normal they all seem that soon helps you forget they are disabled: all of them are prone to fear and lust and a nearly crazed drive to succeed. At the center of this storm of testosterone is Mark Zupan, the captain of Team USA. Paralyzed during an alcohol-related accident (he clung to a branch for 10 hours while waiting for rescue after a friend flipped his truck into a Florida canal), Zupan is an intimidating sight: heavily muscled and tattooed, with a shaved head and goatee. On the court, he is a sledgehammer, barely contained through the steam-vent of competition. Off the court, he’s your average Joe — loved by his family, forgiving of the friend who helped put him in the chair, nurturing to new quads who want to enter the sport and prove themselves. The first time you see Zupan pump down 50 feet of court and smash into an unguarded opponent hard enough to make his teeth rattle, you realize just how stupid it is to pity anyone with a disability.
In the end, “Murderball” is a sterling example of one of the things the documentary format does exceedingly well: helping us “regular” folks understand those who aren’t like us. With its “Rocky”-style tale of competition and the genuine humanness of its subjects, it’s a doc that’s sure to get more buzz — and maybe even a gold statuette — come Oscar time.
— By David Koon