Binh (newcomer Damien Nguyen) is an outcast in his small village and the quiet hero of this affecting drama, which opens in the lush landscapes of the Vietnamese countryside.
The son of an American soldier and a native woman, Binh is considered in his country to be "lower than dust." Though he grew up in his grandmother's home, he is forced to leave when his aunt's new husband moves in, taking his place.
Binh travels to Saigon in search of his mother, where he meets his small half-brother, Tam, and learns about his parents' life together. When disaster strikes, Binh is forced to flee with Tam, boarding a dangerously small boat of refugees with the ultimate destination of America. The ship is waylaid and the brothers are interred in a Malaysian refugee camp, where they befriend a beautiful young Chinese woman, Ling (Bai Ling).
The three make their escape with the help of Ling's dubious connections with the guards, and embark on a voyage to New York that is even more fraught with peril than the last. They find themselves at the mercy of cynical Captain Oh (Tim Roth), as well as horrific conditions of deprivation and desperation among countless other refugees.
Binh must constantly fight the class and cultural hierarchies that survive even under these circumstances. Upon arrival stateside, Binh's situation improves only slightly, but he perseveres in his quest to locate his lost father (Nick Nolte).
Based on a story conceived by Terrence Malick, the auteur's touch is felt in the sweeping beauty of the photography and the wistful, haunting tone of the story. Nguyen's performance is utterly fresh, rendering the melodramatic nature of the material personal and intimate, while the subject matter itself frames the prescient issue of immigration in a story of universal appeal.