Exploiting Van Nguyen

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Better Man (MA). Director: Khoa Do. Starring: Remy Hii, Bryan Brown, David Wenham. Two episodes, commences Thursday 25 July 8.30pm on SBS1

Remy Hii as Van Nguyen stands spreadeagled as he is searched at Changi airportVan Nguyen's story looms large in the Australian consciousness. The execution of this young Australian citizen in 2005, after being found guilty of transporting heroin through Singapore en route from Cambodia to Australia, resonated in the hearts of many Australians. Particularly young Australians who were of an age with Van, and for whom there was a sense of injustice in the severity of the punishment compared with the scale of the crime, or who even questioned whether the death penalty was ever morally justified.

I was one such person, at the time just a year younger than Van, and myself no stranger to making bad choices for what seemed good reasons. I shared the hope and anxiety that attended the legal and grassroots attempts to gain Van's freedom, and the shock and grief when his death by hanging became reality. I can sympathise then with the sense of ownership many ordinary Australians might feel for Van's story. Emotionally, they were part of it. And I anticipated the SBS miniseries as a chance for us to collectively revisit and re-examine those events.

Of course, whatever ownership we might feel for this story, it does not compare with that of Van's family, his mother Kim and his twin brother Khoa. They have objected to the production and planned broadcast of the two part miniseries — due to commence tonight — on emotional grounds. 'She is traumatised. This has opened up old wounds,' Kim's local MP, Member for Chisholm, Anna Burke, has said on Kim's behalf. It is impossible not to sympathise with Kim's objections. Which mother would want public property made of her private grief?

I have no doubt that exploitation is the furthest thing from the mind of series writer and director, Khoa Do. A spokesperson for SBS told Fairfax 'Do felt it was an important Australian story to tell, particularly in the context of ongoing international debate about capital punishment laws'. Do perhaps more than any other established Australian filmmaker has the track record and moral authority to tell such a story without being accused of exploitation. As a filmmaker he tends to prioritise compassion and strong social messages, sometimes to a fault.

In his first film, The Finished People, the decision to enlist real life homeless people to re-enact versions of their own lives underscored the film's bleak authenticity and its practical hope for its subjects, but also gave it an amateurish taint. His film about Vietnamese boat people, Mother Fish, strayed so far from sensationalism as to be almost academic. It was conceived as an educational exercise (Do's own family were Vietnamese refugees who came to Australia by boat), but this at times defeated its efforts to evoke empathy.

However if the first two episodes of Better Man are anything to go by, this time around he has swung too far in the other direction. The fact that it is being broadcast on the commercial SBS network does cast a shadow of doubt across any appeal to the greater good that Do and the network might make while ignoring the family's wishes. As far as the tension goes between humanism and sensationalism in crime-based TV drama, Better Man certainly has more in common with Underbelly than The Wire.

Episode one follows Van (Hii) as he travels to Cambodia, makes an impromptu pilgrimage to Vietnam (his mother's homeland), and embarks upon his ill-fated return journey. After he is detained in Singapore he is interrogated by a somewhat sympathetic agent, who unravels the backstory that led Van to turn drug mule. This revolves around his sense of duty to his family from a very young age as his single mother's eldest son, and from his brother's juvenile indiscretions that landed the family deep in debt.

In addition to Kim's emotional plea, Khoa Nguyen has accused the series of factual inaccuracies that further undermine its moral authority. In this, Do might appeal to the words used by fellow Australian filmmaker Robert Connolly to defend the factual imprecisions in his own film Balibo. He argued that in art, commitment to truth doesn't always demand slavish adherence to facts. 'Cinema can take the audience somewhere and show them a tragedy in a way that creates empathy, which is more powerful than just presenting a series of facts,' he said.

Better Man does go out of its way to build empathy for Van. As portrayed here he is a smart kid arguably vested with too much responsibility from too young an age. His sense of duty to his family is almost tortuous. This, combined with his youthful bullishness and naiveté, leads him to make a mistake that will end up costing him his life. The attention paid to Van's spiritual detour to Vietnam is particular affecting: a fellow traveller notes that Van has come home — he has never been to the country, but ancestral and cultural roots are resilient.

BUt the depth afforded Van belies the shallowness on display elsewhere. Kim and Khoa Nguyen might rightly feel slighted by the implication that they are unwitting agents in Van's fate. The portrayal of the shady drug dealers who oversee Van's illicit expedition are all sneers and expletives and latent violence; they are the kind of one-and-a-bit dimensional villains that are shorthand for evil in the trashier brand of crime drama. Their cartoonishness undercuts the series' serious intent.

It is possible the concluding episode will offer some redemption. Presumably it will portray the three-year legal battle led by Melbourne lawyer, Julian McMahon (Wenham) and Melbourne QC Lex Lasry (Brown) to save Van's life. Hopefully the episode will also sink its teeth into the vexed issue of international capital punishment laws, in a meaningful rather than shallow way. By contributing robustly to this conversation the series might truly claim to be honouring Van Nguyen's life and death, rather than exploiting it.


 

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Van Nguyen, capital punishment, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, Khoa Do

 

 

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Existing comments

I disagree, I think it is such an important story with 2 young men on death row in Indonesia and if the story stops even one silly young person wanting to make a quick buck that is worth the price. The story is very empathetic and as the story is about Van and not his mother and brother why object. Robert Connelly is not some silly person after all.
Marilyn | 26 July 2013


Tim ,thanks for your commentary on the tv show Better Man. After being at st. Ignatius church Richmond on that December day when Van was hung,and being consoled only by the words of peter norden as the church bell rang twelve, it was with a heavy heart I watched the program. I hated the way the writer made popular tv out of such a story. It would have been far better as a documentary. While watching something which was paining me I was too well aware of the pain for Van's mother and twin brother as they relived the journey. . I pray for love and peace for them at this time .
Noela | 26 July 2013


I really admire and enjoy your writing Tim, so I disappoint myself that the first time I write is to disagree with you. The crooks who he deals with as portrayed in the first edition of the show are real people indeed. Perhaps they are one dimensional in real life too, but they certainly exist. Be careful, we might be just trying to wish evil away.
david moloney | 29 July 2013


I have just cried my heart out. Van didn't deserve the death penalty. My prays & love go to Vans beautiful Mum and brother. I think SBS payed the highest respect to A Better Man. Van was used by the big time drug dealers. Van is innocent & now he is an angel in heaven. This true story should make all Australians sad as this is how the Drug lords & big time drug dealers could push & threaten any young person just like Van. God bless Van & his family.
Susan | 01 August 2013


Watch original documentary about Van Nguyen's story Just Punishment www.justpunishment.com.au
Achala | 04 August 2013


'By contributing robustly to this conversation the series might truly claim to be honouring Van Nguyen's life and death, rather than exploiting it'. Sure. But even if it does, it does so at the cost of additional suffering imposed on a family who will never be ready for this. Even the ABC's Australian Story episodes are not fictionalized, and have the permission of most of the family members immediately concerned. This is a story about a family, and they are being made victims all over again.
Joan Seymour | 05 August 2013


Regardless of the debate over some of the historical fine print and the risk of prolonging the agony felt by Van Nguyen's family, the mini series provided an effective opportunity to discuss Van's circumstances with my teenage children. I sleep soundly knowing that my children are aware of the dangerous and heinous nature of drug smuggling; have a respect for the laws of a sovereign nation and that merely being an Australian does not exempt you from that nation's laws; and, that regardless of your intentions, the consequences of your actions may have a tragic and profound affect on others. Regardless of your views on the ethics of capital punishment, I hope those who viewed Better Man will at least think deep and hard before embarking on the same tragic path as Van Nguyen.
JackSpeak | 05 August 2013


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