In 2002 Van Toung Nguyen was arrested in Changi Airport in Singapore for attempting to smuggle nearly a kilogram of heroin out of the country. His arrest and conviction, and subsequent failed appeal and plea for clemency, made news around the world and he remains the last Australian to be executed due to a court-delivered death penalty. Given nobody likes a drug trafficker therein lies the rub – why has his life and death been made into this two-part series Better Man?
Because the story is as important as it is confronting.
Van (portrayed impeccably by Remy Hii) carries the burden of providing for his twin brother Khoa (Jordan Rodrigues) and Mum Kim (Hien Nguyen), and it’s the legal debts of his brother that force him to make the decision to act as a drug mule and, ultimately, seals his fate.
With the story split across two 2-hour episodes there’s lots to learn about Van and the motivation for his choices. It doesn’t excuse them by any stretch, which even Van points out in the second episode of the series.
Episode 1 focuses on Van and his trip to Vietnam as he prepares for and then takes what will be his final flight toward home. We learn of his hopes and plans for life, as well as his relationships and loves. Episode 2 delivers a powerful look into life on death row for Van and the important fight for clemency by his legal team Julian McMahon (David Wenham) & Lex Lasry (Bryan Brown) as well as the effort by his Mum, friends and many politicians to see him granted another chance at life.
It’s hard to fault any performance in this amazing four hours of television from writer/director Khoa Do. Every single moment will have you spellbound; every actor plays their part in this drama perfectly, right down to the tragic final ten minutes.
Better Man is a brave, brutal retelling of an important time in Australia’s recent history and the efforts many went to in an attempt to save one man’s life. In no way does it glorify the subject matter; rather it reveals it for the horror it is. As the first scripted drama SBS have delivered in four years the Network should be both congratulated and encouraged to do it more often. Stunning, must watch TV.
Better Man – Thu 25/07 & 01/08 8:30pm, SBS one.