THREE SEASONS(director/writer: Tony Bui; screenwriter: based on a story by Bui and Timothy Linh Bui; cinematographer: Lisa Rinzler; editor: Keith Reamer; cast: Don Duong (Hai), Nguyen Ngoc Hiep (Kien An), Tran Manh Cuong (Teacher Dao), Harvey Keitel (James Hager), Zoe Bui (Lan), Nguyen Huu Duoc (Woody); Runtime: 113; October Films; 1999)
“Everything gets tidied up in nice little packages by the film’s end and every one walks away enchanted.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Saigon is a different place from the days of the Vietnam War when America defended the corrupt government of the South against the attacking Communist forces from the North and lost that unpopular war — a war that heatedly divided their country and America, as well. To go back and see what that city is like now should prove interesting, especially since there is very little media coverage of Saigon that reaches Main Street America today. The 26-year-old director, whose family escaped Vietnam when he was a two year old to live in California, has gone back to find his roots and observe current conditions.
This rather sentimental elegy to his country plays much like a travelogue bent on painting a pretty picture of the country despite the sad tale it tells of four diverse gentle souls, whose symbolic fictionalized venture will prove to be very touching. We follow them around Saigon and observe as their lives sometimes interact with each other.
What the film lacks is a real poet’s cutting edge and tension and what is also astonishingly absent, is a realistic view of the political situation. But what is even more astonishing is the complete lack of anger from those who are poor, whose lives are so polarized from the very rich and who have been the ones who suffered the most during the war.
There is little risk taken by the director who has shot a purposefully fictionalized account of Vietnam, showing only that it is being swallowed up by capitalism and its own passivity. But he is not blaming anyone for what happened. Forgiveness, he implies, is the basis of Vietnam’s onward existence. The Coca-Cola signs and the luxurious hotels serve only as reminders that this country is being overtaken by commercialism and greed. These materialistic intrusions appear without any kind of analysis. The pastel colors of the film and the brightness of the city, allow even the squalid slum section of town to appear to be picture perfect.
All four of the main characters the story follows are victims of the country’s past war, who are now trying to cope with their situation by understanding what it is that they are now feeling that weighs heavily in their heart.
The film opens on the site of an opulently lush lake showing Kien An (Nguyen Ngoc Hiep) picking white lotus blossoms on the temple estate of an embittered recluse, as part of an all-female work force. The recluse is passing himself off as a poet and some kind of wise man, who can feel the beauty of nature in his soul. This first story relates to the beauty found in the spring season and the harvesting of the lotus.
The women sing traditional songs while working and after gathering their crop, they go to Saigon and sell their flowers on the streets. Competition arises for Kien An, as vendors of plastic flowers do a better business than she does.
When Kien An sings her own song, the boss recognizes it from his happy youth when he was so filled with enthusiasm for life until he developed leprosy and lost all his fingers and retreated from life by hiding in the shadows — embarrassed that children made fun when they saw him.
Kien An is asked to write down the poems the recluse boss dictates to her, that are filled with so much pain and beauty. The heavy-handed symbolism in her story relates to how this country can’t face its true self anymore, blaming only itself for the disease it caught.
The next story is even cornier as the romantic Hai (Don Duong), a cyclo driver, falls in love with Lan (Zoe Bui), a $50 a trick prostitute. Hai courts the snobbish whore in his cyclo, giving her rides from the luxury hotels in which she does her business back to her slum area apartment.
When Hai wins $200 in a cyclo race he then pays for her prostitute services and the haughty Lan turns out to be a frightened girl, who is confused and unsure of herself. Another symbolic message, this time relating to their country and how it must learn to love itself without being gobbled up by foreigners. The season is summer and it is extremely hot.
In the next tale a street urchin peddler of trinkets, Woody (Nguyen Huu Duoc), a boy of eight or nine, tries to sell a lighter to James Hager (Harvey Keitel) in the Apocalypse Now Bar. He is an ex-Marine looking for the grown daughter he fathered but has never seen while stationed in Saigon during the war.
Woody’s suitcase is stolen, and he spends the remainder of the film searching in the rain for the thief who stole everything he possesses. He thinks the thief might be Harvey Keitel. Again, these characters are symbolic–Harvey, for Americans to put a closure on the past and forget; and, for the kid, to get out of the monsoon rain and become strong in spirit, because he is the future of his country.
Everything gets tidied up in nice little packages by the film’s end and everyone walks away enchanted. This very picturesque take on Saigon, that seems to be a love affair the director is having with his ancestral country, turns out to be an irksome charmer. It lacks what it thinks it has: poetic vision. Its beauty is skin deep. “Three Seasons” is an arty film fed to a Western audience that is dying to see something nice about Vietnam, even if that something can’t get past being merely sentimental. The clichéd story had too many coincidences and improbabilities, and had an incomplete picture of how this city now functions. It’s more like a travelogue than a drama.
REVIEWED ON 7/11/99 GRADE: C
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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