After the demise of the excellent East West 101, the broadcaster was starved of funds, so much was riding on its return.
But it could not have made a more impressive return to form than in Better Man. This is exactly the kind of drama it should be making as our multicultural broadcaster.
This two part dramatisation of the execution of Van Tuong Nguyen in Singapore in 2005 is never easy viewing, but the sheer importance of the story makes it impossible to look away.
Remy Hii plays Nguyen, a 25 year old Australian-Vietnamese, living with his mother Kim (Hien Nguyen) and twin brother Khoa (Jordan Rodrigues) in Springvale, Melbourne. After his father abandoned the family it was Van who took on paternal duties. Such responsibility to provide, also saw him foolishly break the law by agreeing to traffic heroin from Cambodia to Australia.
But in Singapore everything went horribly wrong, when he was caught by Customs police -a crime which carries the death penalty. A lengthy legal fight ensued -officials noting Australia would not care for its citizen of Asian appearance. It ultimately ended in tragedy as the last Australian to be executed overseas. It was a story that gripped the nation.
Better Man does not shy away from Nguyen’s crimes, but it does try to put some context upon his mistakes. Most significantly it brings home the penalties of breaking international law and whether the punishment fits the crime.
Van Nguyen is emotionally portrayed by Remy Hii as a bright young man with everything to live for. He is confident, street-smart and devoted, caring for his younger brother Khoa who is prone to trouble with authority and racking up huge debts after a business failure. The first two hours of Better Man are entirely under-pinned by Hii’s magnetic performance. Our sympathies are invested with Nguyen as he travels to Cambodia and Vietnam, becoming entranced by culture and even a romantic fling.
Also making an impressive debut is Hien Nguyen as his mother Kim. In a role that could have easily been over-played, hers is a restrained performance. It’s impossible not to feel sorry for Kim Nguyen, as an innocent mother caught in a much larger political endgame in which she has no means of support: emotional, financial, legal -barely coping with the English language.
In part two of the drama we meet the drama’s A-list stars as David Wenham, Bryan Brown and Claudia Karvan all appear. Wenham plays lawyer Julian McMahon who is compelled to represent the case, despite the demands it makes on his wife Bernadette (Karvan) and daughter. McMahon draws upon QC Lex Lasry (Brown) to take on the Singapore judicial system, despite Lasry’s scepticism at fighting an unwinnable case. It is a fight that will reach to the highest levels, including Prime Minister John Howard, Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer and the High Court in Singapore.
While the overwhelming mood of Better Man is one of utter despair, it also portrays Nguyen’s conversion to Christianity, during which he became a source of strength to family, friends and legal team. In the face of unbelievable adversity, his sense of peace gives the story tremendous poignancy. In the hands of director Khoa Do (The Finished People, Footy Legends, Mother Fish), Remy Hii’s performance brings this home every step of the way.
David Wenham as Julian McMahon is defiant, never undeterred by insurmountable odds, and cleverly manipulating public sentiment to help Van Nguyen.
FremantleMedia films in both Melbourne and Vietnam and the Asian locales give this a credible backdrop, rather than trying to film it on the cheap. Multiple flashbacks in the second hour do make the narrative a challenge, but it pays off later.
The project does note the drama is based on a true story with some scenes and names altered for dramatic effect. The signing of the confession looks like one such example, but the realities of this saga are far more dramatic than minor massaging applied for the small screen.
It must be said that the final scenes are compelling and traumatic. The script by Khoa Do and the performances of Remy Hii and Hein Nguyen conspire to tug at the heartstrings. By the time the relevance of the title makes its point, there will not be a dry eye in the house.
Better Man brings home the finality of capital punishment and the inescapable point that if everybody had tried a little harder, there may have been another outcome.
Anything that forces us to contemplate those kinds of questions has to be seen as the best local drama of the year.
Better Man airs 8:30pm Thursday July 25 / August 1 on SBS ONE.