USA/Vietnam 1998, 108 minutes
After years of bitter warfare and enforced economic isolation, Vietnam is emerging into the international community. Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City, as few people ever call it) is showing tentative signs of prosperity; a few tourists are swanning about in cyclos (the local rickshaw), and the graceful French-colonial buildings are sporting Coca-Cola signs. This changing city is the backdrop for the stories of five strangers: Kien An, hired by a poet to pick lotuses; Hai, a cyclo driver infatuated by Lan, a proud young prostitute; Woody, a street urchin, and James Hager, a former GI seeking the daughter he sired during the war.
Writer and director Tony Bui grew up in California, of Vietnamese parents. He first visited Vietnam when he was 19, and hated it. But once the culture shock wore off he developed a passion for the country, and determined to make a film that showed the Vietnamese as real human beings with a future as well as a past, not just as ‘goons’ fighting in the jungle. He chose to make Three Seasons in Vietnamese, using leading Vietnamese actors and a mixed Vietnamese/American crew; the ensuing communication problems may go some way to explaining the occasional lapses in continuity. And he’s produced a film that is benevolent, optimistic, often moving, and exquisitely shot.
You could see Bui as a living symbol of what the Vietnamese achieved, however fleetingly – they shook America’s faith in itself and raised questions about western values. Bui presents these as bad; there is only one good westerner and only one bad Vietnamese. In an interview he spoke of ‘a certain innocence’ being lost as the country becomes richer and more westernised. But a people that survived conquest by the Chinese, Japanese and French and broke the will of the USA did not do so by being innocent, and although visitors to Vietnam are impressed by their friendliness, lack of bitterness and enthusiasm for the future, there’s a hardness and determination about them that the film never gets to grips with. The characters that seem to represent the new Vietnam are the prostitute and the street waif, victims in most societies, rather than the entrepreneur, engineer or student. It would be a pity if Bui replaced the stereotype of ‘the goon with the gun’ with one more sentimental and less courageous.
Hai: Don Duong
Kien An:Nguyen Ngoc Hiep
Teacher Dao: Tran Manh Cuong
James Hager:Harvey Keitel
Lan: Zoë Bui
Woody: Nguyen Huu Duoc
Director/Screenplay: Tony Bui
Producers: Jason Kliot, Tony Bui, Joana Vicente
Executive Producer: Harvey Keitel
Photography: Lisa Rinzler
“(I’m) not sure how the three seasons worked but (the film gave) a wonderful view of two worlds”
“Too sad for words”
“Slow, gentle, enjoyable: it should be highly rated for the (interminable) duration of the credits!”
“Bleak, beautiful but ultimately Bollywood”
“A succession of images does NOT constitute a film, especially (with) so much sugar & so predictable a plot …. YUK! …. No bite at all”
“Photography better than the plottography!”
“Good music – rubbish plot: please explain the teaspoon …”
“Tour de Noir!”
“So is it Vietnam or Finland for the next holiday, then?”