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Crossing a sea of adversity to find his father

How much hardship can one person endure and still be an optimist? More than anyone can imagine in ''The Beautiful Country," a wrenching new movie opening Friday that depicts the grueling odyssey of 20-year-old Binh to find his father, the American soldier his Vietnamese mother married during the war.

''Binh is a silent hero," says Damien Nguyen (pronounced ''win"), who plays him. ''It's all because of this photo [of his mother, father, and himself as a baby] that he holds close to him. It brings him hope. And hope affords him strength to get through anything life throws at him."

Set in 1990, ''The Beautiful Country" follows Binh as he makes his way as a ''boat person" from Saigon to a refugee camp in Malaysia. Although he is initially meek, a tragedy involving his little half brother (Tran Dang Quoc Thinh) forces him to toughen up during the subsequent ocean voyage to America. This earns him the respect of the ship's ruthless captain (Tim Roth).

In New York, where Binh works as a virtual slave to pay for the crossing, he realizes he loves the prostitute Ling (Bai Ling) who has accompanied him from Malaysia. He finally takes a road trip to rural Texas, where his father (Nick Nolte) lives.

''No matter what happens, he'll summon the strength to get through it. He needs to know his identity," Nguyen says.

Terrence Malick, director of ''Badlands," ''Days of Heaven," and ''The Thin Red Line," discovered the story.

''It came from a student of Terry's [Sabina Murray]," Nolte says. ''He was teaching a screenwriting class at Harvard, and he told me that an Asian student had proposed a very interesting idea."

As a producer on the $5 million project, Malick approached the Norwegian Hans Petter Moland to direct it. One of the main difficulties was casting Binh. ''There was no big star obvious for it," Moland says. ''We looked at a lot of actors. Damien has the same inner strength and quiet dignity that the character has. It's a bit like charm. You can't act it."

The son of a former captain in the South Vietnamese Army, Nguyen had little acting experience but drew on memories of his own harrowing exit from Vietnam in 1974. He was 3 at the time.

''I remember leaving with my parents, grandmother, and five siblings," he says. ''For all I knew, it was a vacation. It was more about getting on a rickety boat, which was carrying twice as many as it was supposed to, and just setting off, not knowing where we were going. We were in the Philippines for 10 days, then Guam, and from there they flew us to Camp Pendleton. But it could very well have gone the way it does in the movie."

Nguyen's family ended up in Orange County, Calif. ''My parents never talked about [their ordeal]," he says. ''It was a sore subject -- all this hate and anger and pain. Only within the last seven years have they opened up."

''In many ways, Bai Ling has made the same type of journey," Moland says, ''from working in the Red Army at 14 [for three years she was in an acting troupe that entertained soldiers in Tibet] to coming to America. Her history was a great resource for her."

After making some Chinese films, Bai, now 34, arrived here as a visiting scholar at NYU in 1991, but stayed to build a Hollywood career. She has worked steadily in films such as ''The Crow," ''Red Corner," and ''She Hate Me."

''I felt bored in China," Bai says. ''I like to walk on the edge of life. I have a wild side. My journey is much different from my character's [in 'The Beautiful Country'], but we both journeyed from East to West looking for dreams."

Once Nolte read the script, he contacted Charles Patterson, the Vietnam vet whose war poems, the actor says, ''allow you to really get inside the Vietnam experience, which is something I've never been able to find [in other literature]. I sat with Chuck and some other Vietnam vets and discussed what hadn't been completed."

The theme that kept emerging, Nolte says, was that neither Vietnam nationals nor American soldiers had come up with the idea of shooting one another.

Nolte, 64, saw that ''some kind of reconciliation" was called for, and he ''recognized immediately" that ''The Beautiful Country" had that idea embedded in it.

''I have a history with Vietnam," Nolte says. He didn't participate in the war, having been registered as ''undesirable" and put on probation for selling counterfeit draft cards. But he has addressed it in his work.

''I started out with 'Who'll Stop the Rain,' which was a film about the cynicism of the situation," he says. ''This film allows me to finish the Vietnam story -- for me."

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