When he was growing up in Sunnyvale, Calif., Tony Bui wanted nothing to do with his Vietnamese heritage. He and his siblings made fun of any references to Vietnamese culture. They avoided learning the language from their parents, who had escaped the country in 1975, when Bui was just 2 years old. But when Bui was 19, his mother sent him back to Vietnam to visit his ailing grandparents. Though he hated the country at first, he was intrigued by the culture and returned three months later to learn the language.
After studying film at Loyola Marymount University, Bui again returned to Vietnam in 1994 to make a short film, "Yellow Lotus," which went on to play the Telluride Film Festival. Though he was only 24, suddenly Bui found himself in the position to direct a full-length film. His debut feature, "Three Seasons," is the first American film shot entirely in Vietnam since the war. It tells three tangentially related stories: a romance between a forward-thinking prostitute and a cyclo driver; a street kid who loses his case of cheap trinkets; and a student of a reclusive teacher/poet who has lost his fingers to leprosy. Intertwined with these is the story of an American Army vet (Harvey Keitel) who has returned to Vietnam to find his daughter. Each of the stories is quite simple, but together they create a complex, layered experience of a country simultaneously caught up in its own past, present and future.
Executive produced by Keitel, "Three Seasons" won both the audience and grand jury awards at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Most press coverage of the festival ran the same photo: A shocked Bui, his hand covering his open mouth, stands to receive his award.
Salon spoke with the affable, exhausted young director while he was in San Francisco, where "Three Seasons" opened the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.
What made you decide to use the three seasons as a framing device for the film?
The three major stories have the characteristics of the different seasons. Hai and Lan, the cyclo driver and the prostitute, their story has the tones and textures of the dry season. The warm colors, the reds and yellows, represent the heat and the passion. Woody, the street kid, is the wet season, with the night and rain and the grays and the blacks, and is about the isolation and coldness of his world. The last story, with Teacher Dao and Kien An, is the growth season, and that's about life, about poetry and flowers and song. Harvey's story, although it's talked a lot about as a fourth story, is really a part of the other three.
Did you write the script with the seasonal theme in mind?
I did. When I got out of film school and had directed a short film I was being asked what I wanted to do next, and I knew I had to direct a feature film. I had this idea to tell the story of a cyclo driver who falls in love with a prostitute, and also another idea about this street kid who loses his case and wanders the street to find it, and also an idea about a poet who lives in a temple and hears a song and a friendship is struck from that. I thought I would pick one story and make a feature, but I couldn't decide which idea I liked best, so I thought what the hell, I'll tell all three stories, they all connect thematically and emotionally. But I needed a structure to do that. I went through many different ideas of what the three things could be -- three bends in a river, three layers in a fruit -- but nothing really worked, and they seemed poetically cheesy. I wanted something that was subtle. I thought three seasons worked well texturally.
In the original script, the stories unfolded one after another, as if one full year had passed, so the dry season story opened the film, then the wet season, then the growth. I also shot the film that way -- it wasn't until editing that I mixed the stories all together, and I found they had greater strength and resonance by intertwining them and letting the stories all take off at once. I never intended to do it that way -- I found it in the editing. I was never happy with any of the cuts I did of the triptych version -- I could never get the right feeling by the end. I had friends watch it and then asked them questions, and they could remember very well the last story but they couldn't remember the first season's story. It also was tiring, because you had to go through all these emotional arcs. Since the arcs the characters were going through were similar -- they all lose something in the beginning, they're all trying to reclaim some sense of hope or life -- I said let's create one arc for the film, and let them all play together.
It was amazing to be able to play the emotions and powers of the stories off each other. Like the scene when Harvey finds his daughter in the parlor and he starts crying, and we break to the scene of Hai sitting alone on his bed preparing for the cyclo race, we were able to have that resonate and mean something. People always say writing doesn't stop when you stop typing -- you rewrite in production, and the final draft is in editing. In film school they talked about that all the time, and it was so true.
What is the film industry like in Vietnam?
The infrastructure is there, but it's quite undeveloped. The bulk of that has to do with not having enough funds -- definitely not lack of passion or lack of talent. There are so many good storytellers who just don't have any money. Because of that, 90 percent of the films are shot on video -- they call them instant noodle films, because you bang it out, you shoot it, one week later it's in theaters. One take and it's done. The state finances a few films to be shot on celluloid, and those are of a better quality. But things are improving with new technology, and as foreign production companies like ours or the French or the Germans come and leave behind technology and equipment, and also increase awareness of how other countries do things. And they also increase the amount of training locals have by having them work on these productions. I think it's going to gain prominence in the international filmmaking world as China has and Iran is right now.
What about the content of Vietnamese films?
They have a ton of soap operas, some action films. What separates the style is the melodrama ... lots of melodrama. But that also reflects the lifestyle of the people. There's a lot of strong, sentimental feeling you get from people. It's a very emotional country. You see that in the films. I tried to incorporate that in "Three Seasons" -- to have an aspect of the Vietnamese sentiment. But I don't like the word "melodrama," I wouldn't want to describe the film as being sentimental. I tried to bring in some of the tones of heavy emotions, but to be as subtle as I could -- much more subtle than Vietnamese films. But there is a touch of it in there, in those moments of union, and those moments of wondering and loss that the characters go through.
I could have gone much darker -- the earlier drafts were a lot darker. I shot scenes with the prostitute that were much harsher, some scenes of Woody in parts of the city that were much darker. But I wanted to make a film that was ultimately about hope, about the resurgence of life and positive things. All the characters start off in struggle, but they're not brought down by that.
Did you ever want to have the characters interact with each other more than they do?
No, it was always just criss-crossing, incidental encounters. That was my experience of Saigon -- it's a city of millions of people, but I kept on bumping into the same people. It was a running joke on the set that the crew was living the film, because we kept seeing the same people over and over. And also, we were experiencing the same changes to the city that the characters experience. We were shooting in one area, and came back a month later and there was a new hotel on what had been a dirt road. Things were changing all the time -- we'd mark a street for a pattern on a brick wall, come back a week later, and the wall had been torn down. Continuity was crazy.
And you had censors following you the whole time?
To get your film approved in Vietnam you have to go through the minister of culture, you have to get your script approved. And once that's approved, if you don't want your footage to leave the country, you can shoot whatever you want, but you have to give it to the censors once you're done cutting the film. But we wanted to send the footage to be developed in a lab in New York. To do that, since they couldn't see any of our film, the censor was with us all the time to make sure we followed the script. And we did -- we had no intention of changing anything, or sneaking out at night to steal some shots. But there were still problems because there are different interpretations of the same script. They found a lot of symbolism in things that were not symbolic at all, like colors -- they'd say why do you have to use the color red, is that an aspect to communism? Or why does Teacher Dao have to be a leper -- Ho Chi Mihn also was a poet, Ho Chi Mihn also grew white lotuses, are you trying to deface Ho Chi Mihn? We were shooting on the lake, and after a few days the flowers began to wilt, as they do, and the censors were like, why are the flowers wilting, are you trying to make a symbolic point?
At times they were too film savvy, but reading the wrong things into things. And at other times they weren't film savvy at all. They held a week's worth of footage I shot of Harvey eating in the parlor where he finds his daughter. The scene has women feeding him, giving him cigarettes to smoke. They didn't mind the scene being in there, but they didn't want too much of it to be in there. They were watching a week's worth of dailies on videotape, maybe 16 hours of this, and they completely didn't understand that it was going to be edited down to maybe 40 seconds in the film.
It was tough in that sense, but to their credit, they would always hear me out, and let me explain what I was trying to do. They wanted me to finish this film because they thought it was positive, and was different than how most films show Vietnam.
How do most films show Vietnam?
Definitely through the context of the past, and through war. All the films I saw growing up about Vietnam had to do with the war. When I set out to make a film, I was very conscious of it not being about war -- Harvey's character is the only bridge to the war.
Do you think there will be a time when films about Vietnam won't reference the war at all?
I hope so. It's going to come more from the filmmakers in Vietnam. In our country we haven't let go -- there's still a lot of guilt, a lot of bitterness and anger. But enough time has passed that we should make films about the people, about healing and moving on. Vietnam moved on a long time ago. For us, it's the only war we've lost. Vietnam has been through a thousand years of war -- they've fought the French, the Japanese, then the Chinese, then Americans, then after us the Khmer Rouge, the Chinese again. For them, we're just part of a long history of trying to declare their land. No one in Vietnam talks about the war. For them, it's all about joining the world and becoming an international country.
Before we went over there, my crew was asking me, "Don't they hate Americans? Isn't it going to be dangerous?" Which couldn't be further from the truth. You can buy American flags on the street over there -- you can't buy Vietnamese communist flags over here.