Survival epics are difficult to make, and to watch, because their subject matter so easily overwhelms both filmmaker and audience. Those that succeed tend to concentrate on the personal rather than the political, as The Pianist and Hotel Rwanda do. In these films, the heroes are reluctant and flawed, swept up by the tide of history against their wills. Their very ordinariness humanizes cataclysmic events which, despite their graphic horror, remain abstract to those who don't experience them firsthand.

The Beautiful Country, the latest feature from Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland, also presents itself as an intimate portrait, in this case of refugees in search of a homeland. An ambitious movie made on a modest budget, its intention is better than its execution, although Moland coaxes good performances from newcomer Damien Nguyen and veteran Nick Nolte, and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh captures the disparate beauties of locations as distant as Vietnam and Texas.

Nguyen plays Binh, a bui doi, or "less-than-dust" mixed-breed leftover from the Vietnam War. Raised by a foster family in a rural village, he's assigned the most menial chores, routinely insulted because of his Western features, and summarily dismissed when the household becomes too crowded. Traveling to Ho Chi Minh City, he finds his real mother with the aid of an old photograph. Mai (Thi Kim Xuan), who works as a domestic, secures a position for her son as a houseboy. Both endure physical and sexual provocation until a fatal accident requires Binh to flee for his life.

The ensuing odyssey takes Binh across the South China Sea to a refugee camp in Malaysia, on to New York City and finally to Houston, where he believes he'll find his ex-G.I. father. The journey is perilous and humiliating, requiring Binh (to cite one typical episode) to swim to a listing slave ship in the middle of the night, towing along his little brother, Tam (Tran Dang Quoc Thinh), and his new friend, Ling (Bai Ling), in a woven basket. Once aboard, Binh is forced to sign over his soul in exchange for passage to the promised land-he's actually made to walk the plank-but the trip proves too much for Tam, who dies of fever.

Moland and screenwriter Sabina Murray want us to experience the hardships of furtive immigrants desperate enough to cross oceans in a rust bucket to get to the United States, but they sentimentalize the journey just the same. Binh and Ling, who has earned her passage money through prostitution, strike up a romance that is not only improbable but unnecessary, replete with a dreamy kiss stolen in the stuffy hull while their shipmates whither from starvation. Similarly, Binh and the evil Captain Oh (Tim Roth) engage in a broken-English debate that amounts to a kind of temptation at sea, but again, these scenes feel imposed upon the story rather than arising extemporaneously from it.

In short, the obstacles Binh and Ling struggle to surmount have the portent of not-so-subtle plot elements, a flaw that becomes more pronounced when the characters arrive in Chinatown. At this point, the filmmakers give in to irony, showing us busboy Binh scraping plates of uneaten food into a trashcan, in pointed contrast to the miniscule portions of rice he and his shipmates were allotted only days before. Then comes the cruelest blow, when Binh learns that, as the child of an American serviceman, he was eligible for U.S. repatriation. The news devastates him-we have a scene of obligatory rage-then galvanizes him to seek out his father down south. Incredibly, he simply walks away from his mobster bosses.

In Houston, Binh locates an address where he discovers his father's ex-wife (Libby Villari), who explains she hasn't seen Steve for years but points her stepson, with a stupefying lack of curiosity, in the right direction, toward the Texas flatlands. Viewers must seriously suspend disbelief, as well as disregard perplexing contradictions-is Steve a bigamist?-as Binh manages to track down his dad and learn his side of the story. By now, even the roguish boyishness Nolte brings to his performance cannot save The Beautiful Country, which has devolved into contrivance and bathos.

Moland and his producers, who include Terrence Malick, deserve credit for making a serious movie about a difficult subject, but in reaching out to a larger audience, they opted for a soft focus. Dramas about exploited peoples, as Osama and Maria Full of Grace proved, are best told in their own harsh light.
-Rex Roberts