Better Man (SBS Miniseries)

Last night, SBS screened the first episode of the mini series Better Man, which depicts the events leading up to the execution of Australian Van Nguyen in Singapore at the age of 25. He was convicted of being in  possession of approximately 400 gms of heroin, which in Singapore means the death penalty.

The opening night of Better Man marked the return of SBS to producing serious drama, and the debut of an unknown Australian actor who will surely be bound for stardom –  Remy Hii, a graduate of NIDA, plays Van Nguyen with an intensity and respect that wrings every drop of emotion out of the viewer and leaves an exhausted human shell sitting in front of the TV.

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The first episode is a tour de force for this young actor – he commands the screen from start to finish. The next episode introduces heavy weights David Wenham and Bryan Brown, and while I am a great admirer of both, they will not be what draws me back. It will be Remy Hii, and the unfolding of this tragic story.

As a mother of two sons, it is harrowing to watch. Rights and wrongs are swept aside – this is a son, a brother, a young Australian man facing a fate he would never have to face in Australia for the same crime. Here, we don’t even execute child killers. Arguments that Nguyen deserved his penalty because of the harm that heroin might have done are not worthy of consideration. Every day and night around the world and here in Australia, alcohol and tobacco do far more harm, and yet the legal drug peddlers remained unscathed. Certainly the CEOs of Big Tobacco and Alcohol do not wake in the morning knowing they are going to be hung that day.

So I do understand the feelings of Van’s mother Kim Nguyen when she condemned the making of this drama, because it brings back all the grief and trauma of his death, but still I watched it, partly because it is such a superior production, but also partly to better understand the events that began in 2002 when Van foolishly agreed to be a ‘mule’, carrying drugs into Australia. Although his arrest was unknown for nearly 24 hours, it quickly escalated into a cause celebre in Australia when it became known that this young man faced the death penalty.

The desperate, intense campaign to save his life ended in failure. But what the mini series brings to life is his identity, as a young man raised in Australia, part of a community, part of a family, one of us. Hii’s performance makes this lost young man return to life, it bares the suffering caused by one dreadful mistake and its ramifications across a range of people, both public and private. If I were his mother, I would not want to see it either, to watch his terror and helplessness so agonisingly portrayed. As the Bali Nine wait – and I pray there are no more deaths, no more grieving mothers – we surely know now that the death penalty is no deterrent.

Part Two of Better Man screens on August 1 at 8.30pm on SBS. I will be posting another review following the screening.

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