Directed by Tony Bui (1999)
"A driving force for me was to make a film in Vietnamese with Vietnamese actors and to tell a modern story. Growing up I only saw the Vietnamese in war films, as faceless people running through the jungles with guns. That's not what I saw when I went there. I wanted to bring out their humanity in a way that hasn't been shown, the universality of the human spirit." - Tony Bui
Director Tony Bui left Vietnam to live in California when he was only two years old, then returned to take a look at postwar Vietnam in 1994. The result was his 1999 film Three Seasons that walked away with a prize for Lisa Rinzler's cinematography as well as the Best Dramatic Picture Award at the Sundance Film Festival. Performed in Vietnamese with Vietnamese actors, Three Seasons is a series of interweaving stories about loss and redemption in the lives of four characters living in Ho Chi Minh City (though the residents apparently still call it Saigon). Its strength lies, not in its plot or characters, but in the stunning images and dreamlike quality that transports the viewer into a world of sensuous music and soft colors where village women sing while they work, harvesting flowers on a lotus lake.
The main and most effective story is about a cyclo driver Hai (Don Duong) who falls in love with a prostitute named Lan (Zoe Bui), He wants to "redeem" her innocence and dutifully waits for her each day as she leaves her hotel. When they go to a hotel together, he pays $50 from the money he won in a cyclo race merely to watch her sleep, a gesture that allows her to experience the feeling of being loved for the first time. The second story is about a young lotus picker Kien An, a female orphan (Ngoc Hiep Nguyen) who befriends her employer, Teacher Dao (Manh Cuong Tran), and lovingly copies his poems that he cannot record himself because of leprosy.
This gesture allows both to touch the poetic quality of life, the teacher for perhaps the last time. The other stories involve a five-year old street urchin named Woody (Huu Duoc Nguen) who braves monsoon-like weather to sell trinkets to tourists in order to survive. When the box containing his wares is stolen, he sets out to find it. This brings him in contact with an American, James Hager (Harvey Keitel) in Vietnam to search for the daughter he left behind when the war was over. This last episode is the least developed of the four and Keitel's performance seems listless in spite of the fact that he is Executive Producer of the film. All four stories come together at the end in a way that ties up all loose ends.
Though I am grateful for any look into Vietnam, Three Seasons left me wanting more. It is almost as if Bui was being overly cautious, afraid to say anything about what he saw because of the censors following him around. As a result, his film does not convey a strong sense of time and place, and the neon street signs and glamorous hotels patronized by the rich could be anywhere in the world. Perhaps it is true that the city's culture is being overrun by rampant commercialism, but the director observes this without comment and seems content to offer only a highly romanticized tone poem. Even the city's textures, squalid areas, and chaotic energy are so muted by the use of camera filters that it robs them of their steamy authenticity. Three Seasons is visually striking but left me feeling like a distant observer. I found the characters to be neither fresh nor engaging and the film overly composed, lacking in the poetic vision that turns an average film experience into a great one.