Three Seasons

on April 30, 1999 by Ray Greene
   "Three Seasons" managed the rare trick of winning both the audience and grand jury prizes for a dramatic film at Sundance 1999, despite the fact that it was virtually impossible to find anyone in attendance at the festival who felt passionately about director Tony Bui's feature debut. The story behind the story may account for the film's success as a trophy winner: Bui, who was born in Vietnam but raised in the United States, shot his film on location in his original homeland, making "Three Seasons" the first American movie shot in Vietnam since the end of the war. The healing nature of that gesture, plus the shaky humanism of Bui's worldview, seem to have combined to elevate "Three Seasons'" Sundance reaction to an altitude well beyond its actual merits as a motion picture.
   Purporting to be a saga of today's Vietnam, "Three Seasons" is basically a compendium of movie cliches made to seem fresh and new by an exotic location and the fact that most of the dialogue is in Vietnamese. There are four intersecting stories: a cyclo cabbie falls head over heels for a beautiful prostitute and redeems her by his love; a U.S. veteran (Harvey Kietel) returns to 'Nam to find the daughter he conceived while stationed there; a dying poet asks a flower girl to transcribe his final lines; a child's livelihood is threatened when a thief steals the case of lighters, watches and chewing gum he sells to the tourist trade.
   With the exception of the poet/flower girl plotline, every narrative element in Bui's feature has been seen before and been done more competently. The high-minded dignity of Bui's directorial approach translates into turgid pacing coupled with at-times-stunning cinematography, and the gentle payoffs, which might have buoyed the film if they seemed truly revealing of another way of life, too often feel like received wisdoms and bromides borrowed from the neo-realist giants like Rossellini and De Sica, who are obvious touchstones here.
   The Sundance success of "Three Seasons" and the consequent "buzz" surrounding Bui in the festival's aftermath may indicate a new indie superstar on the rise. More likely, though, is that Bui's bubble will burst the minute "Three Seasons" makes contact with the larger world.    Starring Harvey Kietel, Don Duong and Nguyen Ngoc Hiep. Written and directed by Tony Bui. Produced by Jason Kliot, Joana Vicente and Tony Bui. An October release. Drama. Vietnamese-language; subtitled. Not yet rated. Running time: 113 min.
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