Review: 'Three Seasons' -- war and remembrance
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By Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- Tony Bui's "Three Seasons" is the first American film to be made in Vietnam since the war ended, and you have to applaud the accomplishment, if not necessarily the film as a whole.
When properly utilized, filmmaking can serve as a profound political tool (a fact that was unfortunately exploited by the Nazi party when Adolf Hitler was rising to power). But a medium this commanding can also be used as a healing agent, a balm for the slow-closing wounds of a horrifying, violent conflict.
The elegiac tone of "Three Seasons" is certainly a step in the right direction. The problem is that Bui has created a rather fumbling piece of would-be poetry, a multiple plot-line narrative that wavers unsteadily between the obvious and the needlessly open-ended.
Several points of view
We follow the trajectories of several different sets of people as they come to grips with their own yearnings while the lingering signs of Americanization (huge Coca-Cola billboards and elegant four-star hotels) are quickly closing in on what was once a more spiritually connected society.
Harvey Keitel is credited as the film's executive producer, and he has a small role that seems designed more to garner the film a distribution deal than to put an established Hollywood actor through his paces. Keitel plays an American veteran who's returned to this former war zone to find the now-grown daughter he sired with a Vietnamese woman.
To some degree, the former soldier is just another signifier of America's entanglement with this enigmatic culture. A thoughtful rickshaw driver (played very touchingly by Don Duong), spends a lot of his time watching Keitel and wondering why he does nothing but sit on the corner and stare at a cafe across the street for hours on end.
It's not especially difficult to determine that Keitel is looking for his child. We've seen this kind of thing often enough. The character is too easy to define even when Bui thinks he's shrouding him in mystery.
Duong's role, on the other hand, is much meatier, in that this hard-working laborer, a man who has to live on the hot streets and hustle to maintain any semblance of dignity, also possesses a tender, romantic heart. You find yourself rooting for him when he starts falling in love with one of his customers, a beautiful prostitute played by Zoe Bui.
If Bui the director (no relation to the actress) had focused entirely on the relationship between these two characters, I'd be shouting that "Three Seasons" is one of the best films of the year. The prostitute is a walking example of Vietnamese grit and determination coupled with the American concepts of capitalism and aggressive sexuality. To the director's credit, she doesn't turn out to be your basic hooker with a heart of gold.
She realizes pretty quickly that the rickshaw driver who waits for hours outside the hotel in which she's visiting johns is infatuated with her. But she only opens the door to his affections after he pays her not for sex, but simply to watch her sleep. The culmination of this fragile, awkward relationship is a sweet stroll down an avenue covered with red flowers, the kind of carefully considered visual you find throughout the film. But this one possesses true emotional resonance rather than simply looking gorgeous.
Another story deals with the relationship between a young lotus picker (Ngoc Hiep) and her employer (Tran Manh Cuong), a leper who's lost his fingers to the disease and is now unable to write poetry without her help. If that makes you roll your eyes a bit, you're exactly right. Hiep's emotional journey is full of lovely, languid imagery.
But again, this isn't movie poetry so much as it's a precociously self-conscious fabrication. The reality of the stifling city street scenes crushes the believability of the lotus picker's scenario. It seems more like a wistful schoolgirl's essay than a slice of real life, especially when the grounded sequences between Duong and Bui have such dramatic bite.
There's also a subplot concerning a destitute little boy (Nguyen Huu Duoc) who loses the case of trinkets that he sells to tourists -- including Keitel's character -- out on those crowded streets. His vicious father won't let him come home again until he finds the case (it's the only way they can earn any money), but his search is a great deal less than dramatic.
A life-or-death situation hinging on the recovery of a mundane object is a dead lift from Vittorio De Sica's classic of Italian neo-realism, "The Bicycle Thief." But surprisingly, when you consider the rest of the movie, it contains none of De Sica's overt emotionalism.
So it's a split decision. It seems that Bui isn't exactly sure when to lay some real drama on top of his intentionally delicate touch, and the film ultimately suffers for it. "Three Seasons" isn't a bad movie, and its heart is in the right place. But it turns into vapor and drifts away when lashing out in anger (or desperation) would be a completely acceptable response. There can be poetry in rage, too. It just isn't as easy to cover with flower petals.
Aside from the fact that one character is a prostitute, there's very little troubling content to "Three Seasons." It's practically sweet-hearted to a fault. Children might be frightened by the plight of the little boy, but I doubt it. They probably wouldn't want to sit through it anyway. Rated PG-13. 113 minutes.
Bui's 'Three Seasons' brings Vietnam into the present
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