This prodigiously accomplished cinematic love poem to Vietnam is the sensation of the year in American independent film. For once, the hype is almost totally justified.
Like most American viewers, I have no idea how much Vietnam resembles the country Tony Bui, who left at age 2, gives us here. But I do know that the world of "Three Seasons" is rich, diverse and full of dynamic contradictions, ranging from an impossibly peaceful and beautiful lake of lotus blossoms to the city's filthy, cacophonous streets and swanky Western hotel rooms. This 26-year-old California filmmaker's debut feature is an unashamedly sentimental movie, blending a naturalistic portrait of poverty in contemporary Saigon with transcendent elements of fairy tale, but the combination rarely feels forced or phony.
I point out that "Three Seasons" is an American film -- even though it was shot entirely in Vietnam, with roughly 90 percent Vietnamese dialogue -- because it reflects the uniquely ambivalent tenderness of an immigrant looking back to the old country. From "Fiddler on the Roof" to "The Joy Luck Club" to "Angela's Ashes," the realization that the traditional society of one's ancestry is being transformed or even vanishing under the tide of history is a distinctive marker of the American experience. That the old country was often the site of tremendous suffering and deprivation -- our ancestors usually had good reason to leave, after all -- only heightens the sense of sad ambivalence.
Just as Bui's Saigon is a place where wealth and poverty; city and country; capitalism and socialism; and ancient and modern collide, "Three Seasons" is a film with a divided sensibility. Its gorgeous, almost painterly composition shows the influence of Asian cinema, but its unsparing and deeply compassionate portrayal of city life, viewed from the bottom up, owes a debt to Italian neorealism, especially to the greatest of all urban-poverty films, Vittorio de Sica's "The Bicycle Thief."
If Hai (Don Duong), a 30ish cyclo, or bicycle-taxi, driver who retains a sense of serenity amid the chaotic energy of Saigon's streets, could be a De Sica character, the beautiful prostitute Lan (Zoe Bui), with whom Hai falls in love, might come from Fellini's "Nights of Cabiria." Lan is fascinated by the rich businessmen she charges $50 for sex, and vows, with a kind of wounded arrogance, that she will escape from her world into theirs: "They have a different talk, a different walk. The sun rises for them, not for us." Yet despite her fantasies about king-size beds and air conditioning, she won't spend the night in her clients' luxurious hotel rooms. Hai, along with the audience, sees right away that beneath Lan's hauteur is a wounded, hungry girl; if the fable of the good-hearted working man and the lonely hooker is a familiar one, it's told here with exquisite sweetness.
Lan and Hai's story is just one of several narratives in "Three Seasons," and, like strangers in the big city, these stories bump into each other or pass in the night, but never quite intersect. Kien An (Nguyen Ngoc Hiep) is a young woman who rises at dawn to cut fresh lotus flowers on an indescribably lovely lake belonging to the mysterious Teacher Dao, before peddling them on the street. Woody (Nguyen Huu Duoc), an implacable street urchin of 8 or so, is also a peddler, hawking cigarettes, gum and trinkets outside the lavish hotels and discos where Westerners and upscale Asians mingle. Finally, James Hager (Harvey Keitel), an ex-GI returning to his former haunts, is searching for the daughter he abandoned in Saigon years ago.
While Keitel's involvement as executive producer and co-star undoubtedly made the success of "Three Seasons" possible, his segments of the film are undoubtedly the weakest. Inside a nightclub called Apocalypse Now, James makes Woody sit and share a beer with him while he tells the uncomprehending kid, "I just know it's time to find [my daughter], and maybe make some kind of peace with this place." As an old friend of mine always says at movie moments like this, "Hello, Mr. Exposition!" Nowhere else in "Three Seasons" does the writing have this strained, explanatory quality; it's understandable that Bui wants to refer to the painful connections between America and Vietnam, but he has little feeling for this material.
This film's best moments, in fact, are not verbal at all; cinematographer Lisa Rinzler's unhurried compositions display a dazzling command of light and color, almost always with the human figure as the central but not solitary focus. In the deep shadows of a temple, in the center of the lotus lake, Kien An meets Teacher Dao, a sad, dying poet disfigured by leprosy. Robbed of his cigarette case, homeless and destitute, Woody nonetheless joins an impromptu street soccer game during a raging downpour, later taking refuge in an electronics store to stare solemnly at a "Sylvester and Tweety" cartoon. Waiting outside a hotel for Lan to emerge from another liaison, Hai placidly reads a book on his cyclo, as if time, money and the strangling city around him were meaningless abstractions.
You could argue that Bui's enchanting ending sequence, which brings Hai and Lan together in a storybook finish and sends Kien An on a mission to fulfill Teacher Dao's last request, is too simplistic, too idyllic, to fit with the complicated vision of "Three Seasons" as a whole. As the forest of construction cranes over Saigon attest, none of the characters can escape the tremendous changes the global economy is inflicting on their country, and none has anything like a secure future. But Bui's film is so full of love, so rich with genuine artistic sympathy, that I'm prepared to forgive him a flight into fantasy. His Vietnam, after all, is both a real country and a land of memory and imagination, and in this remarkable film he has given it immortality.