Three Seasons
Three Seasons arrived in theaters with a great deal of hype surrounding it. Not only was it the first American
feature to be shot in Vietnam since the 1970s, it had also won three prizes at the 1999 Sundance Film
Festival, including the Grand Jury Prize and one for Liza Rinzler's painterly cinematography. As such, there is
much to admire in the film, the first full-length movie from Vietnam-born, California-reared Tony Bui, but also
some elements which are a tad unsatisfying.
The filmmaker is as interesting as his movie. Having tried to distance himself from his homeland and
adopting western ways, Bui returned to Vietnam to visit with relatives and found he couldn't shake the
country. He learned the language and continued to travel between the USA and Vietnam, in the meantime
studying film and directing the short Yellow Lotus (which also debuted at Sundance). Three Seasons is an
ambitious undertaking as he shaped a triptych meant to portray people caught between the old ways and
modernity in Vietnam. He had toyed with the idea of telling the stories in sequence but in the final cut, jumbled
them. While the scope of his vision is admirable, some of the characters he created are less than original.
Each of the titular time periods are represented by characters caught between past and present and each
was shot with regard to color scheme. The dry season is represented by an aging cyclo driver Hai (Don
Duong) and Lan (Zoe Bui, no relation to the director), a young woman who dreams of a better life and hopes
to raise the necessary cash by prostituting herself. Hai becomes her guardian of sorts and drives her around.
He enters a race with the hope of winning the cash prize which would allow him the privilege of her services
for a night. Rinzler utilized bright colors and warm hues to demonstrate the lack of moisture. The second
"season" represented is the wet one -- embodied by Woody (Nguyen Huu Duoc), a young boy who hawks
lighters, watches and other souvenirs (some left over from American G.I.'s). He meets up with James Hager
(Harvey Keitel, who also served as one of the producers), an American searching for the daughter he left
behind during the war, and loses the case which contains his livelihood. These sequences are filmed in cool
colors (blues and grays predominantly) to represent Woody's growing isolation. The final segment centers on
Kien An (Nguyen Ngoc Hiep), a country girl sent to work as a lotus picker who catches the attentions of the
mysterious Teacher Dao, a former poet whose writings have ceased because of illness. As this is the
segment about art and the "growing season", it is the most attractively filmed, utilizing vibrant greens and
vivid whites.
This schematic approach, though, is what robs the film of its full dramatic weight. Each character must bear
the burden of being a symbol and some collapse under that weight. Also, there are so many echoes of other
previously produced projects, (ranging from Cyclo to Mona Lisa to Miss Saigon) that the film seems less than
the sum of its parts. That is an unfortunate thing, as Bui clearly has talent and his intentions were undoubtedly
heartfelt. Three Seasons is well-acted, although the Keitel segments, which serve as a kind of artificial linking
device, feel less developed than the others. When Hager has the long-awaited reunion with his daughter, the
audience doesn't really care as neither has been developed deeply enough. On the other hand, the other
stories, despite cliches, contain some powerful moments, partly because of the fine performances Bui has
elicited and partly because the audience has become vested in the story. Rinzler's exceptional
cinematography also is of utmost importance. At the first screening I attended, the print did not have subtitles
and while I couldn't follow the story, I was immediately taken by the crisp, clean look of the film; its lush look
drawing me in. Seeing it with the subtitles, I was able to fully admire what Rinzler achieved and to see what
Bui was aiming for. This is clearly a director to watch and despite some shortcomings, Three Seasons is
worth a look as it provides a snapshot of a country in transition.
© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.