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Well Seasoned

Writer-director Tony Bui knows how Sundance sees his film, but he still wants the verdict of Vietnam.


NEW YORK — Tony Bui's "Three Seasons" came as close as anything ever does to a sweep of this year's Sundance Film Festival, taking the audience and grand jury prizes as well as the award for cinematography, but the director was so sick at the time that the significance of what was happening didn't sink in.

"It didn't even hit me until three days later because I was so ill," Bui says. "It was the first time in my life I thought I was going to faint." He was so sick, in fact, that immediately after the ceremony he checked himself into an infirmary.

Weeks later, he's seated in one of those New York hotels that's so hip you can't even find it. In the intervening time he's also been back to Los Angeles, where he lives; then to the Berlin Film Festival; then to Italy (to visit "Three Seasons" star Harvey Keitel) and now here. He's still got a cough, and he's still wearing the stocking cap that he had on at Sundance. The road to the making and the marketing of "Three Seasons" must seem endless. And the reviews are just starting to come in.

One of them is from Keitel: "He's an extraordinarily talented young man, a poet who seems to be wise beyond his years."

More important than this, more important even than Sundance, at least as far as Bui is concerned, is the opinion of the government of Vietnam. "Three Seasons" is set in Vietnam and was made in Vietnam, the first American production to be made there since the war. It's basically four stories--about a leprous poet finding a muse in a lotus picker, a cyclo driver's infatuation with a prostitute, a former American G.I. searching for his daughter and a street kid looking for his stolen merchandise--that illustrate how rapidly the country is changing.

So far the government has withheld its official approval, though unofficially the officials like it. But it's their official approval that Bui craves. He feels it will give his film--and him--a kind of credibility.

"The thing that troubles me is that I feel like an outsider making movies about Vietnam, even though I've spent the last seven years living there and here," says Bui, who was born in Saigon and raised in Sunnyvale, Calif. "It always comes from people here in the West who question my age [26] or my ability to make a film in Vietnam."

Certainly no one would question Bui's tenacity. He and his brother, Timothy, who is several years older and who co-produced the movie, insisted that it be made in Vietnamese, which scared away financiers who were interested in the project (it was eventually backed by October Films). The shoot was plagued by cultural and language barriers and bad weather. The Buis also had to deal with a level of government scrutiny that makes studio meddling look like child's play. Vietnamese officials, already cautious with foreign filmmakers, were even more careful after a previous project from France called "Cyclo" painted a much darker picture of Vietnam than its makers had promised it would.

Script Approved by Viet Government

"It is tough when so few films are shot in a sensitive country and the last one that comes creates problems," Bui says. "Everything I did, they would always go, 'Oh, yeah, but you want another "Cyclo." ' Or 'Yeah, but "Cyclo" did this. How do I know you're not going to do the same?' "

The "Three Seasons" script was vetted by the government, and the filmmakers had to sign a document stating that they would not deviate from it. A censor was on the set at all times. Dailies were reviewed by the authorities, even though sometimes they didn't understand what they were seeing. One clash involved a scene in which Keitel's character and other men are fed and pampered by Vietnamese women in what could be interpreted as prostitution (it in fact was a form of prostitution).

"They held all that stuff and were going to shut us down," Bui says. "It just took time to explain to them, 'Look, it'll be in the film for 30 seconds. Trust me. No one is going to think of the film as the film where the Vietnamese women are feeding men.' But when they watch eight hours of dailies, that's what they think."

"We have to remember the sensitivities between them and America," says Keitel, who describes being there as a sensory experience, a sometimes ominous one in which the streets and the smashed U.S. Embassy conjured up images from the war. "And also to remember that Vietnam allowed this film to be made."

Bui was routinely called in to have discussions in a room called A25 with officials wearing military uniforms and smoking cigarettes. Though this may evoke images of "We have ways of making you talk," Bui insists that they were always respectful to him. He attributes a lot of this to his uncle, Don Duong, who plays the cyclo driver and is a star in Vietnam (he expedited their shooting permit and helped negotiate with the censors).

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