"Three Seasons" is not a documentary. Its characters are composites of people writer/director Tony Bui met or observed in his travels. Most actors in the film are either Vietnamese or Vietnamese-American, and this is the first American fiction film since the war shot entirely in Vietnam.
The big winner at the January 1999 Sundance festival, this film received the Jury Prize, the Audience Award, and an award for cinematography. These awards also, of course, honor the film's writer/director, 26 year old Tony Bui, an American today who was born in Vietnam, and executive producer Harvey Keitel, who is the only American starring in the film.
"Three Seasons" is film storytelling at its best. The setting is postwar Vietnam, with examples of political, social, and economic changes triggered by the victory of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Not all is perfect and well being is redefined, but beauty is clearly evident in the people, their struggles, their city of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), and the nearby countryside. Beauty is even found in the dark and rainy streets, but some of the most beautiful shots are in the exotic world of the lotus-gatherers.
Three stories, seldom connected except by chance meetings of the separate characters, capture the attention of audiences as many perhaps view Vietnam for the first time as more than a war. One first sees the story of Kien An, the young woman who picks lotus flowers to sell in the city. She meets a leper, teacher Dao, and soon provides the means by which he resumes his poetry writing. She and the poet are among the film's characters who are missing out in the postwar rebuilding of Vietnam. Nevertheless, they find beauty and support of each other's needs in their new relationship.
A second story involves a poor cyclo driver, Hai, and his interest in a young prostitute, Lan. Lan is doing her best to tap into the new capitalist-type prosperity in Saigon but is increasingly taken by the attention Hai shows her. Their relationship gradually develops through surprisingly simple and beautiful moments that seem genuine in a setting of more and more neon and plastic.
The third story develops around James Hager, a former marine who is looking for his Vietnamese daughter. He is the major tie to the war and its human impacts. He is also the one who connects with another character, Woody. Young Woody is a small boy who works as a street peddler in Saigon, selling whatever he can to support himself and others. Woody is, perhaps, the symbol of the new struggle in Vietnam -- the struggle of almost everyone to benefit from the new economy.
There is evidence of economic change and that struggle for a share of the new wealth in many of the film's scenes in the streets and alleyways of Ho Chi Minh City. There is a western-style bar and music, many new high-rise hotels, and the yellow taxicabs which are gradually replacing cyclos. Fortunately, however, "Three Seasons'" most lasting images for the viewer will be about the relationships of characters in the three stories and the world of shadows in which they live.
At one point, Lan says, "we live in the shadows of those hotels." She wants to live in one of them at the time or marry one of the men she meets there. But we watch as she changes in reaction to the continuing, at times even obsessive interest of Hai. His simple gifts and attention to her without thought of reward really gets to her. Their story ends, as do the stories involving the other major characters, without complete resolution. Yet viewers will leave, I believe, satisfied that they have witnessed some genuine and touching human emotions in this depiction of the new Vietnam. And most will probably notice that resistance to Westernization is still present there.
|Kien An||Nguyen Ngoc Hiep|
|Teacher Dao||Tran Manh Cuong|
|James Hager||Harvey Keitel|
|Woody||Nguyen Huu Duoc|
October Films Web Site for Three Seasons