Through a blistering and frozen Quebec winter The Greatest Country In The World projects the feeling of gathering around a flickering flame to hear a story. While the wind howls and ice bites at your skin, director Ky Nam Le Duc guides you slowly through the dark and, while never shielding you from the honesty of the bleakness, you’ll still emerge from the otherside with memories of a small and mighty flame dancing amid the cold.
On paper the film - which is the first primarily French language feature to play at Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival in its 24 year history - is a mystery set amid a politically tumultuous backdrop. In the aftermath of a reactionary and populist government taking hold of the National Assembly the combined petri dish of state-sanctioned violence as well as the resulting uptick in emboldened bigotry from the party’s outspoken and subtle supporters has thrown the immigrant and refugee community of a suburban town on the outskirts of Montreal into a period of dark instability.
Second and third generation families with means have begun selling their properties and businesses, planning for life after Quebec. This includes widower and dépanneur owner Hiên (Nguyen Thanh Tri). The film first finds him in the midst of packing up decades of life in Canada to join his daughter Phuong (Alice Tran) - a successful IP lawyer - who, many months prior had happily thrown aside her Canadian roots to permanently move to Vietnam under the guise of a temporary transfer.
For the undocumented, underwaged and those pending-status while seeking refuge in Canada the dynamic is far more bleak. Housekeeper Roseline (Schelby Jean-Baptiste), a Hatian migrant with no status , underscores the rapidly compounding trauma by asking Alex (Mickaël Gouin) her employer to watch her son Junior (Stanley Junior Jean-Baptiste) as she attempts to smuggle herself across the border to visit her dying mother in America before it’s shut down permanently.
Reluctant at first, Alex - who is Phuong’s ex-boyfriend and is currently spiraling through an episode of dejected denial - eventually agrees to watch Junior for a few days until Roseline returns. When days turn to weeks, then a month Alex - with no one else to turn to - seeks the help of Hiên, once his future father-in-law and now last remaining link to a former life that made sense and has vanished overnight.
Despite Phoung’s insistence her father simply leave Alex to sort out his own problems. Hiên, a former Vietnam vetran and first-generation immigrant to Canada, agrees to help determine the whereabouts of Rosaline. Drawn to Junior by a kinship, despite their lives in many ways being worlds apart, he makes up his mind that before he leaves the cruelty and isolation of the only place he’s ever found a sense of stability and home he wants to ensure Junior is not left adrift amid its upheaval.
What follows is a simmering and brutal journey through an interrogation of Quebec's - and to a larger extent Canada’s - relationship to immigrants. As the search for Rosaline grows increasingly suspicious and confounding, Hiên and Alex find themselves at the heart of a neo-noir that spans underground organizations supporting immigrants off-the grid, the intersection and shared struggle of Quebec’s historically excluded Asian, Latinx and Black communities, as well as the ugly and reactionary politics of Canada - which render all too potent in 2020 as to not feel more than a hairline away from documentary.
The Greatest Country In The World is an extraordinary Canadian film. While its urgency feels very of today - like the diverse spectrum of characters and viewpoints which make it whole - it is ultimately a story that spans generations and sits above being tied to any one point along the cyclic nature of political moments in history. My only hope is that sometime in the future it won’t need to be told in the dark.
You can stream The Greatest Country In The World Canada-wide until Nov. 19 through The Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival.