Nearly a quarter of a century after the fall of Saigon, only a small film industry has managed to grow on Vietnam's war-scarred soil. And what has emerged is rarely seen outside of local cinemas. If ever there was a country that needed to seize back control of its cinematic face, it's Vietnam. Imagine being at war with the nation whose films dominate international cinema. Imagine being portrayed in decades of American movies without having any say over your world image. Imagine (in effect) trying to counter Dolby Digital/THX/DTS without benefit of even a megaphone.
Three Seasons represents a step on the road to reparation: It is the first American film to be shot in Vietnam since the war and the first to be in Vietnamese with a nearly all-Vietnamese cast. Director Tony Bui himself is most definitely American; only 26 now, he was two years old when his family fled Vietnam for California. Still, having been raised in an emigré family, having visited Vietnam repeatedly since 1994, and having learned the language, he has a better claim to understanding the local culture than nearly any other filmmaker with access to international distribution.
The major exception is French director Tran Anh Hung, whose wonderful 1993 Scent of Green Papayas was the groundbreaker. Like Bui, Tran had left Vietnam in 1975; but Tran was 12 at the time, giving him real memories to draw on. On the other hand, Scent set in the colonial '50s and shot entirely on a soundstage outside Paris with an all-refugee cast didn't even attempt to capture modern Vietnam.
Bui, on the other hand, set out to present a fabric of contemporary life in and around Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). Three Seasons is closer to Tran's Cyclo, but far more accessible and coherent than that disappointing sophomore effort.
Bui intertwines stories of three vastly different pairs of characters: Most central is Hai (Don Duong), weary but hopeful cyclo driver, who falls in love with a cynical prostitute (Zoe Bui) he picks up as a fare one night. Kien An (Nguyen Ngoc Hiep), a young girl who harvests whites lotuses outside the city and comes to town to sell them, becomes the favorite of her reclusive, disfigured master (Tran Manh Cuong). Woody (Nguyen Huu Duoc), a resourceful eight-year-old street peddler, is thrown out by his father when someone steals his suitcase of goods; Woody is convinced that the man who has thus ruined his life is former G.I. James Hager (Harvey Keitel), who has come back to Saigon to locate the daughter he abandoned twenty-some years earlier.
For most of the film, these stories are parallel and distinct; only toward the end does Bui show us how they interlock. (With one exception, the connections are minor.) What all three stories have in common is their central conflict: All are driven by the tension between the past which in Vietnam is all too evident and hopes for the future. The present is a continual, unsettling process of transition.
Memories of the war, which was a prime architect in forging the country's current state, are always in the background; they only become explicit once or twice, in the name of a local bar (Apocalypse Now!, apparently a real business) and in Hager's explanation of his mission.
Bui has chosen a tough structure to pull off in a first film, but his technique is assured, and he manages to make his three-part story feel all of a piece. He also displays a sure hand with actors: The movie benefits immeasurably from strong performances by Duong and Duoc. If there is any problem here for general American audiences, it is one of cultural knowledge: There are one or two moments when the specifics of local conventions may be confusing for outsiders, but they go by quickly.