After debuting at the 1999 Sundance Festival to positive audience responses, director Tony Bui's first feature-length film "Three Seasons" went on to score a hat-trick at the awards ceremony, picking up the trophies for Best Cinematography, Best Dramatic Picture, and the Audience Award. This American-financed feature, the first to be filmed in Vietnam following the end of the war, paints a portrait of life in modern-day Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). Despite the Communist victory of 1975, life in today's Vietnam in many ways mirrors the have- and have-not social inequity of the Western world, the product of unrestrained capitalism. And though the diversity of city life provides an ample canvas for writer/director Tony Bui to work with, the end result, while lushly visualized and lyrically told, lacks the emotional resonance and narrative cohesion worthy of the rich images that Bui adorns the screen with.
Despite having the title "Three Seasons", the narrative of the film is split into four distinct threads that interweave throughout the film's two-hour running time, though it could be argued that it is one to many. The first thread follows Kien An (Ngoc Hiep Nguyen), a young woman who has been hired to pick and sell lotus blossoms by Teacher Dao (Manh Cuong Tran), a reclusive poet afflicted with leprosy who prefers to remain hidden from prying eyes. The second thread follows Hai (Don Duong), an impoverished pedicab who falls in love with Lan (Zoe Bui), a beautiful prostitute he 'rescues' from a bad 'date'. Another thread follows Woody (Huu Duoc Nguyen), a young street peddler who loses his case of wares in a bar, and spends most of the film trudging through the rain-swept streets in search of it. Finally, there is James Hager (Harvey Keitel from "City of Industry"), an American ex-GI who has returned to Vietnam to search for the daughter that he left behind.
At its core, "Three Seasons" is a story of lost and found. Each vignette has two 'lost' individuals finding one another and ultimately healing their own emotional scars in the process. The four vignettes are effective to varying degrees, with the story of Hai's chivalrous concern for Lan being the most powerful, providing some emotional hooks to the often-used 'hooker with a heart of gold' story. Hai's actions, though predictably virtuous, are accomplished in a manner that comes across as seeming fresh and genuine. The emotional honesty of their budding relationship is further cemented by some surprisingly strong yet earnest performances from Duong and Bui, who convincingly embody the wounded souls of their characters.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the remaining vignettes, which wind up being lackluster and plainly conventional attempts at poignancy-- the film's relaxed pace becomes very noticeable when the camera is not on Hai and Lan. The weakest entry would have to be the story thread belonging to Hager, which is not given very much screen time for some character exploration. Disappointingly, this thread is further weakened by Keitel's listless performance. This is surprising, since Keitel (who also executive produced the film) is usually associated with a more engaging screen presence than what is seen in this film.
Another aspect missing from the proceedings is the lack of integration between the film's four parts. Though the characters pass one another in the streets and have occasion to interact briefly, the film does still come across as four films with very few unifying elements, and never really builds up to the thematic epiphany expected in such a clearly symbolic narrative.
Despite the weaknesses in the narrative aspects of the film, Bui has created in "Three Seasons" a visually stunning film with some memorably touching moments, even among the weaker story threads. The beautifully-composed vistas captured by Bui and his cinematographer Lisa Rinzler are radiant, particularly the mist-swept pond where Kien An harvests the lotus blossoms, the stark juxtaposition between the city's antiquated architecture and the intruding glow of neon, and a blossom-swept street that appears at the film's close. One of the more memorable moving scenes in the film is paradoxically part of the Hager thread-- after Hager finds his long-lost daughter, the raw gaze of grim realization in Keitel's eyes is captured effectively by Bui's camera, adding some emotional weight to an otherwise disappointing story thread.
"Three Seasons" does have its share of slow moments, and at times, the storytelling is second-rate by-the-numbers. However, Bui more than makes up for it with the film's more enchanting moments and eye for capturing memorable scenes on film. For a debut effort, Bui certainly shows great promise, and he is certainly a filmmaker to keep an eye on in the years to come.