Just before the end of the second part of A Better Man last night, SBS popped up a warning that some of the final scenes may cause distress to viewers – they meant the hanging, of course, but by then anyone who had managed to come this far without feeling any distress would surely be in need of a heart transplant. Not for one moment did the amazing Remy Hii lose his grip on the viewers’ mangled emotions, and when he began singing the Robbie Williams song, what could have been the corniest moment on TV was another cue for tears. This has been a hell of journey through one of the most ghastly miscarriages of justice in living memory.
Had this sweet, foolish, beautiful boy been tried in Australia, he would still be alive, and still able to fulfill the promise of his youth – but he was arrested for carrying heroin in transit to Australia, not Singapore and the botched investigation was ignored, all at the price of his life. That he should have died, and the heinous men who entrapped hm as a drug mule and left him to his fate paid no penalty, is horrifying. That the then Australian government did a Pontius Pilate and washed their hands of it, is shameful. We needed to see every harrowing moment to know, not just what other governments are capable of, but to know as well what our leaders can and will not do for the sake of economic relations.
On a dramatic level, this was a brilliant second half, bringing Van’s brother Khoa back into the narrative, and highlighting the selfless, engaging portrait of their mother by Hien Nguyen. Of course, it was boosted by the star power of David Wenham and Bryan Brown. Wenham gave a typically strong performance as lawyer Julian McMahon, who took on Van’s case pro bono (meaning for no reward other than the public good) and led a campaign to prevent his death by hanging, while Bryan Brown as Justice Lex Lastry QC was as reliable as ever. Both did the material justice, and Wenham in particular brought the emotions of trying to save a young life brilliantly to the screen.
But it all belonged to Remy Hii, and the courage of Van Nguyen, as he faced the end of his life with humour (yes, really! while everyone around him wept) and with the sincere hope that it made him a ‘better man’. Better than those in power at the time, certainly.
You can watch Just Punishment, a documentary about Van and the legal team who tried to save him, and read this contemporary report (October 2005) from The Age. Twitter was also ablaze last night, as you can see here.