Partway through Tony Bui’s Three Seasons, a group of cyclos—bicycle cabbies—rest briefly, waiting for fares on the crowded streets of Saigon (officially, Ho Chi Minh City, though few people call it that). Behind them is a building wall painted deep red: two of the men have a conversation, and the camera keeps their faces in close focus. One of them spots a potential customer and leaves, wearily pedaling away. The camera cuts to a long shot from across the street: the red wall is the ground for a huge Coca Cola logo, now seeming to loom over the remaining driver, hunched back in his seat.
Vestiges of the West are ever close to the surface in Bui’s Saigon. Certainly, the American War lingers everywhere, in memory and reconstruction, in fashion and commerce, in the person of ex-Marine James Hager (executive producer Harvey Keitel), returned to find a daughter he abandoned during the war. Financed by U.S. dollars, this is the “first American film” shot in Vietnam since the American War. The filmmaker is a bit more difficult to categorize: a two-year-old Bui left Saigon with his family in 1975, shortly after the fall. He grew up in Sunnyvale, California, a more or less regular American kid. Then, in 1994, Bui started returning to Vietnam, rediscovering familial and cultural ties he thought he had long since left behind.
Bui’s own experience of combined histories and identities seems to resonate throughout Three Seasons, which is never hateful toward Vietnam’s Western invasions so much as it is observant and recuperative. The film is the kind of gorgeously made, sentimental look-back that pleases people at festivals like Sundance, where it won a prize for Lisa Rinzler’s elegant cinematography, as well as the Best Dramatic Picture Award and the dreaded Audience Award (usually given to films that are at first easy to like and then annoying, once you think about them, for instance, The Brothers McMullen). The film’s subject matter—conflicting demands of tradition and modern life, young people dealing with prostitution, violence, and poverty—is similar to that of Tran Anh Hung’s Cyclo (1997), but the directors’ approaches are quite different. Where Tran’s work is edgy, often abstract or fierce, Bui’s film has a lyrical, even serene appearance.
But for all surface grace—and there is much of it—it’s evident that Three Seasons also explores many tensions. The screenplay, by Tony Bui and Timothy Linh Bui, fractures into four stories that only momentarily connect, each occasioned by a character at a different “season” of life, each concerned with yearning, loneliness, and eventually, redemption. The device feels contrived when various protagonists meet cute on the street or in a bar, but it makes its point about rituals and patterns, in movies and in life.
The first story concerns a young street kid (Huu Duoc Nguyen) called Woody (because he wears a grubby Woody Woodpecker tee-shirt). He sells cheap watches, cigarettes, and bic lighters to tourists and partiers in after-hours clubs. When he loses his case of wares one night, he’s terrified that he’ll be turned onto the street by his stereotypically evil overseer (though the film shows his life in the street, playing games with other homeless children, and the whole episode looks a little too pleasant, despite a torrential downpour). He loses this case while he’s drinking with Hager, who befriends him for a minute because, it appears, the tee-shirt reminds him of home. Hager’s in town, depressed and wandering in full-blown midlife crisis, seeking the Amerasian daughter he couldn’t acknowledge when he was a young soldier in country.
While getting up the nerve to locate his daughter, Hager spends his days sitting in a folding chair in front of his hotel, chain-smoking cigarettes and causing the cyclos who park across the street to speculate about his purposes. One of the cyclos, Hai (Don Duong), is the focus of the third story. He becomes obsessed with a local prostitute, Lan (Zoe Bui), whom he gives a ride home one evening. Because she’s looking for a rich boyfriend and Hai is poor, his chances initially seem slim: but the moral of the story is overwhelming, and the hooker’s heart of gold must emerge. Like most prostitutes you see in the movies, she’s troubled by her work, and eventually collapses emotionally, so that she’s ready to be rescued when Hai arrives, equipped with an ancestral cleansing ritual.
And the last story focuses on a girl, Kien An (Ngoc Hiep Nguyen), newly hired to harvest lotus blossoms for a reclusive employer, Teacher Dao (Manh Cuong Tran). She immediately irritates the older women workers by singing her own sad song, remembered from her village childhood, instead of listening to the one that head-harvester’s been singing for years. When Teacher Dao hears the song, he also recognizes it (coincidentally, he comes from the same village). He summons her inside his dark, dusty, Miss-Havisham-ish mansion: they recognize in each other a poetic spirit, and she agrees to transcribe his poems for him, as he’s lost the use of his hands to leprosy. She wants to heal his wounded spirit; he wants to feel alive again through her hopefulness and trust.
It’s clear enough that the film’s symbolism isn’t subtle. And its plots are predictable, relegating characters to positions and emotions designed to elicit your sympathy straight-up. You know that Kien An’s career as a lotus-picker is in trouble when she spots a new shop in town, one that sells plastic lotus blossoms, odiously artificial and permanent. But at least she’s brought momentary joy to Teacher Dao. Of course, as soon as he starts reminiscing about his childhood, you know he’s going to die. You know that Hager will find his on his last night in town, that the ferociously independent Woody will find a reason to survive, and that Lan will find true love with her devoted cyclo. You know, in other words, that these men and women will find peace, once they’ve recognized their proper social places.
Three Seasons wants to show individuals triumphing over adversities, recovering from traumas, looking forward to better times, as well as nostalgia for those better days before American and French and other invasions, material and ideological. And that is the film’s most profound tension. Bui says that he was able to shoot in Vietnam, with state-appointed censors on the set, because the film is “not about the war or politics.” This may be true at the level of plot: only Keitel’s character refers overtly to the war and no one speaks a word against the government or recent history. But the movie can’t help but show that today’s Vietnam is infused with the war’s forever-after effects: this is a profound and unsettling politics, no matter what the filmmakers say.