Bui's 'Three Seasons' brings Vietnam into the present
Web posted on: Friday, April 23, 1999 12:48:36 PM EDTBy Jamie Allen
CNN Interactive Senior Writer
ATLANTA (CNN) -- In the minds of many Americans, Vietnam exists as we left it, a napalmed jungle of military madness that's become a favorite Hollywood history lesson. Such images live in "Platoon," "Casualties of War," even the "Rambo" series -- stories based on a war that ended more than two decades ago.
But writer-director Tony Bui was born in Vietnam in 1973, two years before the fall of Saigon. He then was raised in California by a family that fled the region. Bui knows a much different Vietnam. And he aims to capture it in his first feature-length film, "Three Seasons," a poignant look at the country, and the people who populate it, as they exist today.
"The consciousness in terms of Vietnam in America is in one light, and that light is war and conflict," says the 26-year-old director. "Here's a film where I'm trying to create a different light that deals more with the people and deals with the hopes and concerns of a country that's in transition, and a country that's at peace and is more worried about moving forward and how to join the economic world and the international world."
Set in Saigon, "Three Seasons" interweaves a trio of stories about characters who arc through life-altering changes:
There's the street boy who loses his case filled with peddling wares, and searches for it as if he's seeking his own grail. There's the cyclo-driver who falls for one of his fares, a prostitute he helps to reclaim her innocence. And there's the young woman who befriends the leprosy-plagued master of a lotus plantation; she helps him rediscover poetry and a link to Vietnam's past.
The film dominated the Sundance Film Festival, its premiere, taking home the Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Award and the prize for cinematography.
"Three Seasons" stars Don Duong (considered one of Vietnam's finest actors), Nguyen Ngoc Hiep, Zoë Bui (no relation to Tony), Nguyen Huu Duoc, and Harvey Keitel, whose story slips throughout the piece. Keitel plays a former American soldier who's looking for the daughter he fathered. He's seen her only in an old photo.
Each character can be seen to symbolize a piece of Vietnam's recent history -- its rebirth after war and its metamorphosis into a new century of change.
"I was tired of all these films of Third World countries that dealt with just the hardships and the poverty and all the pain and conflicts," Bui says. "I wanted to capture the greater spirit of life and something that is more positive."
The fact that Bui got this film made at all is something of a historic footnote. Originally produced by Open City Films (now distributed by October Films), it's the first American film to be made in the country since the war, shot mostly in Ho Chi Minh City. Bui, who wrote the screenplay with his brother Timothy, had to get the movie's script approved by the Ministry of Culture, and then filmed it under the watchful presence of a censor.
"The censor's job is to make sure we're not trying to shoot another film, that I wasn't trying to shoot 'Rambo 6,'" Bui says, laughing. He says because he lived in the city, formerly known as Saigon, his experiences of the government prepared him to deal with challenges not common in a democracy.
But "I know for our American crew, it was pretty shocking," Bui says, recalling how the censor tried to find symbolism in things like wilting flowers and food eaten by certain characters.
"Harvey kept going, 'Who's that guy following you around?,'" Bui says.
So why deal with such interference? The answer comes easily to Bui, who was born in then-Saigon and spent time, when 2 years old, in Vietnamese refugee camps on American soil.
"The importance of shooting in the country and on the actual land and using real Vietnamese actors and hearing real Vietnamese dialogue ... all that was more important to me and I was able to deal with (the censor)," Bui says.
Despite Bui's clear spiritual connection to his homeland, it took some time to reach this link to his past. He first visited when he was 19, and he hated it.
Ho Chi Minh City, he recalls, was soaking in humidity. He found dust and dirt roads and traffic and poverty. It was, in short, the Third World. He spent two weeks there and couldn't wait to leave. But shortly after landing in the United States, Bui says, he had an "incredible sense of longing" for Vietnam.
"All the things I hated about my first experience, the heat and humidity and the crowds, would become all the things I would embrace about the country, and love those differences and love being stuck in those traffic jams with thousands of bicycles and people driving by with 30 ducks on their motorbikes and the dirt roads and all that stuff," Bui says.
"But all that is also changing. All that's going away. That's why it was important for me to make this film as well."
Some of the greatest moments in Bui's "Three Seasons" display his love for the country. The simple crowd shots bring out the personality of the people and the land. The scenery, meanwhile, captures the clashing of old and new -- dirt roads and paved streets, cyclo-drivers and taxis, fresh lotuses and plastic flowers.
Following on its success at Sundance in January, "Three Seasons" has been building momentum on the festival circuit. It releases in New York and Los Angeles on Friday; it opens nationwide next month.
One major attraction for U.S. filmgoers is Keitel. Bui calls him "the Godfather of independent film," based on Keitel's pervasive presence on the scene in such films as "The Piano," "The Bad Lieutenant," "Pulp Fiction" and "Mean Streets."
Though Keitel's moments in this film are relatively few, his presence as executive producer is an added influence.
"He so much protects the vision of the director," Bui says. "He always said, 'I'm making your film Tony. I'm not making my film or the studio's film. This is your film and that's what I want to be here for and that's what I want to protect.'"
Bui's vision seems to be 20-20, judging by the response of festival crowds.
"Everything that has happened ... it's been pretty gratifying to know that people connect with what you're trying to say," says Bui, whose schedule over the next few weeks is packed with media interviews.
There's one scene in the heart of the film in which Keitel's character is talking to the street boy, explaining to him why he's returned to the country to search for his daughter. Keitel says he's there to "maybe make some sort of peace with this place."
Maybe the line is heavy with the self-consciousness of a young filmmaker, but he's one who has something to say, not only for himself, but for every person who's tried to forget about Vietnam.
"It's a personal film," Bui says. "It's just something I wanted to say ... It's really your own personal journey."
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