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Quickly Changing 'Seasons' in Vietnam

Filmmaker Tony Bui evocatively captures his native country's tremulous character.


Tony Bui's "Three Seasons" is the gentlest, most exquisitely beautiful of films, set in a place that has experienced one of the bitterest struggles in modern times. That place is Ho Chi Minh City and its environs, and Bui, a 26-year-old filmmaker in his feature debut, has returned to the land of his birth to tell three loosely linked short stories. They all reach their own moments of truth only to give way to a larger truth: that Ho Chi Minh City, and by extension, Vietnam, is in a time of wrenching change, with the charming old French colonial city of Saigon being erased by a modern metropolis of skyscrapers, luxury hotels and miles of neon.

Bui, who left Vietnam for America with his family at age 2, discovers the soul of the city and its people and celebrates their resilience, leaving us with the feeling that the Vietnamese will have to make important choices for themselves if they are to hold on to traditional humanist values in the face of the inevitable technological and industrial transformation of their country generated by foreign interests. You cannot watch "Three Seasons," the first fiction feature produced in Vietnam by an American company, without recalling "From Hollywood to Hanoi," the first documentary made by an American company in Vietnam, in which actress-filmmaker Tiana also returned to the land of her birth, expressing similar concerns.

A skilled director of actors, Bui introduces us first to Kien An (Nguyen Ngoc Hiep), a pretty, deceptively demure young woman who has been hired to pick lotus flowers in a large pond dominated by an ancient temple and then sell the flowers in city streets. Kien An joins a large group of women involved in this timeless task but inadvertently breaks rank when, following a song the women sing every day, she dares to sing her own song, one taught to her as a child by her mother. She is overheard by poet-teacher Dao (Manh Cuong), who recognizes it from his own childhood and who has not left the temple in years and has, in fact, never been seen by any of the women. He is a shadowy figure in a wheelchair, but Kien An retains her poise and dares to reach out to this solitary man living with a terrible secret.

In the city, Kien An will in time sell lotus flowers to both Hai (Don Duong) and James Hager (Harvey Keitel). (She will also find herself competing with proliferating sellers of plastic lotus flowers.) Hai is a cyclo driver, a cheerful man who's constantly reading and who becomes infatuated with a beautiful young prostitute, Lan (Zoe Bui, no relation to the director), to the extent of waiting for her to finish her work late at night at the city's luxury hotels.

On principle, Lan refuses to stay overnight with her johns but also has hardened her heart, determined to escape poverty by landing a husband among her upscale clientele. In the meantime, Hai's love for Lan increases along with his resolve in expressing it in the most effective way possible.

In the meantime, Hai notices the American, Hager, sitting in a folding chair, smoking day after day, in front of a small hotel across from his cyclo stand. Hai also keeps an eye on Woody (Nguyen Huu Duoc), a small boy who peddles watches, flashlights and trinkets from a wooden case he carries everywhere. Woody approaches Hager, an anguished Vietnam veteran searching for the grown daughter he has never met. Hager offers the boy his first taste of beer in the nearby Apocalypse Now Cafe, a onetime hangout for the American military. The beer makes the boy sleepy, and as he starts to nod off, his case is stolen, thus propelling him on a search parallel to that of the Viet vet for his daughter.

In telling these tales, Bui reveals that while war has come and gone and an entire and different form of government has been established, a grinding poverty remains the lot for many, many Vietnamese, cutting them off from the new modern society emerging, except at the most menial levels. At the same time, he affirms the redemptive power of a selfless love, especially in the instance of Hai and Kien An.

"Three Seasons" is a film of gestures, physical and spiritual, and this spirit is expressed in both Richard Horowitz's stirring score and Lisa Rinzler's glorious, flowing camera work, with its rich muted hues and sensual glow. "Three Seasons," a movie for any and all seasons, gazes with a sense of beauty and compassion at hard realities without glossing them over.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for thematic elements. Times guidelines: adult themes and situations but suitable for mature older children.

'Three Seasons'

Don Duong: Hai

Nguyen Ngoc Hiep: Kien An

Tran Manh Cuong: Teacher Dao

Harvey Keitel: James Hager

Zoe Bui: Lan

Nguyen Huu Duoc: Woody

An October Films presentation. Writer-director Tony Bui. Based on a story by Tony Bui and Timothy Linh Bui. Producers Jason Kliot, Joana Vicente, Tony Bui. Co-producer Timothy Linh Bui. Executive producer Harvey Keitel. Cinematographer Lisa Rinzler. Editor Keith Reamer. Music Richard Horowitz. Production designer Wing Lee. In Vietnamese and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.

Exclusively at the Fine Arts, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 652-1330.

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