Mini drama Better Man follows the story of Australian Van Nguyen, the last man to be executed in Singapore. We meet the show’s writer and director Khoa Do.
In 2005, the face of 25-year-old Van Nguyen dominated the Australian press. Convicted for trafficking illicit substances through Singapore, he was sentenced to death. He remains the last Australian to die from the death penalty. It ended up being a case that split the nation. With the new mini-series Better Man, starring David Wenham, Bryan Brown, Claudia Karvan and newcomer Remy Hii (who plays Nguyen) we see the story of a man’s plight that initially never made it to the front pages.
The series has been written and directed by former Young Australian of the Year (2005) and AFI-nominated filmmaker Khoa Do. ‘You knew this was a major national interest story that we had to tell, there’s so much more that never came out,’ says Do. The series focuses on Van’s troubled upbringing with his twin brother, the events leading up to his arrest in Singapore and culminates in the three-year legal battle to save his life.
Do says he hopes the show will ignite the capital punishment debate in a country that is divided on the death penalty: ‘At the moment we have young Australians sitting on death row overseas, and there are a lot of Australians who are opposed to it but there are also a lot of Australian’s who are for it.’
Do, who broke into the local film industry when he wrote the script for the acclaimed short film Delivery Day while he was still studying an Arts and Law degree at Sydney University, believes his own personal history and upbringing (he and his family originally settled in Sydney as Vietnamese refugees) helped contribute to making Better Man. ‘There are times when I needed to direct a scene with a family that was going through tough times. That’s easy for me because I’ve been there, I know how that feels, what that looks like, so I can make it more real.’
The journey from headline to screen began when a producer at Freemantle Media approached Do to ask if he would consider working on the story of the last Australian to die from the death penalty. Immediately Do knew it was Van. ‘Australians need to know who he was. They need to get a deeper understanding of this young man – they never knew much more than that,’ adds Do. It then took more than a year to write the script for Better Man and during that time Do collaborated and spoke to those involved in trying to save Van in order to do due justice to his story.
Do says he hopes Better Man can make Australian audiences reexamine their assumptions of Van. ‘You want the audience to relate and sometimes that’s not easy because a lot of people in Australia already have preconceived ideas of how they feel towards Van. You’ve got to get them into Van’s shoes.’
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