[Metroactive Movies]

[ Movies Index | Show Times | Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

Seasoned Newcomer

[whitespace] Three Seasons
Lens Crafter: Director Tony Bui lines up a shot for 'Three Seasons.'

Sunnyvale director Tony Bui rediscovers his homeland in the Vietnam drama 'Three Seasons'

By Richard von Busack

FILMMAKER TONY BUI, a 26-year-old man from Sunnyvale who grew up to win the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, remembers the first moment he got a look at the land of his ancestors, Vietnam. He was traveling with his father, Sam Son Bui, a former officer in the South Vietnamese Army who had escaped the communists.

"The cabin doors opened, and I stepped out of the plane," Bui recalls. "From that moment until I left, I hated every moment of it. ... I hated the sounds, the smells, the claustrophobia. I didn't understand then that I had to go back. [But] I did, and it's funny, because all the things I hated at first, I ended up embracing."

The shock of discovery runs through Bui's film, Three Seasons, made in Vietnamese in Vietnam. Three Seasons is billed as the first American film made in Vietnam, though it may actually be the first American feature film made there, since the independent documentary From Hollywood to Hanoi, among others, included scenes shot there.

The award-winning movie has made Bui the most-honored filmmaker to come out of the valley in 10 years. It's a family film for Bui, co-written with his brother, Timothy Linh Bui, and starring his uncle, Don Duong.

Bui, a slender, long-haired young man in a leather jacket, ticks off the four things that he wanted to achieve with Three Seasons: "First thing was to do the film in the Vietnamese languages, because I've seen too many movies where the actors who were supposed to be Vietnamese were speaking English. The second thing was to use real Vietnamese actors. Third, it had to be [made] on Vietnamese soil. Fourth, it had to be a contemporary story that did not deal with war or politics."

Despite Bui's fourth goal, there is one reference to the war in Three Seasons, in the brooding subplot about an American veteran named James (Harvey Keitel), who revisits the country where he fought and has a few drinks at the Apocalypse Now bar. (It's a real place in Saigon, Bui tells me, a hangout for European businessmen and backpackers.)

The title is a bit of artistic license. The southern part of Vietnam, where Bui filmed, has a rainy season and a dry season. Bui then added one of his own: a growing season. Echoing the seasons, the narrative unfolds in three parts: (1) A bicycle-taxi (cyclo) driver (Duong) has an unrequited affair with a chic prostitute (Zoe Bui, no relation). (2) A female hired hand on a lotus-flower farm becomes the student of the plantation's owner, Dao (Manh Cuong Tran), a scholar disfigured by leprosy. (3) An old American soldier (Keitel) encounters a street kid who sells trinkets. Bui weaves the tales' threads together at the end, but not quite in the way we've anticipated.

Except for a cyclo race, the pace is languid, watchful. In the lotus-farming section, there's a scene in which the scholar emerges from the shadows, revealing his face for the first time. It's an image that reverberates with the stateliness of the grand romantic entrances of silent films. Lotus harvesting is the prettiest agricultural labor in the world. Women in wicker boats slowly paddle through a lagoon. Shaded by conical hats, they gather the blooms as they float by. In the middle of the water sits a temple where the master lives. The setting is so beautiful, you almost forget it's a plantation.

OBJECTIVITY is a wonderful quality in a filmmaker or a tourist, and you can sense Bui working out his feelings as he photographs Vietnam. "Obviously, at the beginning I did feel like a foreigner," he says. "Now I feel like I fit in, because of all the times I traveled there."

Bui was 2 when his family escaped from Vietnam. After the Bui family left the internment camp at Ft. Chaffee, Ark., they came, like so many other Vietnamese immigrants, to the Silicon Valley. Bui grew up on Santa Paula Avenue, near Fair Oaks Park in Sunnyvale; he attended San Miguel Elementary School and Fremont High School.

"My father," Bui says, "was working for Memorex. After he left, he opened five video stores. This was pre-Blockbuster. Suddenly I had 50,000 movies at my disposal. I ended up watching 20 films a week. It rocked me. Film is such an incredible medium that utilizes so many art forms, literature, music, performance. I was fascinated by the craft and the art. This was definitely what I wanted to go into."

Most filmmakers of Bui's generation are interested in the flash and action of movies--and in imitating and cutting together the best parts of the movies they've seen on video. Bui's own interests, however, lean toward neo-realism--films about the nonviolent poor, in other words.

Bui's perspective as an immigrant may be the one thing that has kept him from cloning the sensibility of so many film-school grads. I ask if he faced much prejudice growing up. "You know, it's funny," he says, without laughing. "I heard all the different comments as a kid, all the 'gook' comments. But you know what? I think this says a lot about my household or the Vietnamese mentality, that I never used that as an excuse.

"Obviously, racism used to come up all the time in this country. There was plenty of teasing on the buses when I first came over. But just as obviously, I never felt like it hindered me or held me down. I never felt I couldn't do what I wanted to. ... My mom always would say, 'If someone else can do it, you can do it too.' Because of that, I never thought that I was weighed down because I was different, and now I find the obstacles were a strength."

Three Seasons
Memory's Child: Zoe Bui in a languid moment of repose.

VIETNAM IS ONE of the poorest countries on the globe. Its film industry supports eight or nine shot-on-film projects a year, supplemented with "instant-noodle movies," made on tape and exhibited quickly either on local television or at the remaining movie theaters in Vietnam (most of which are equipped with video screens instead of projectors).

Bui borrowed the necessary technical equipment from a Canadian company making a film in Vietnam. As he worked, Bui had government censors watching him, putting their seal on every reel he shot. Yet he's brought back a story in which crime and poverty figure.

Three Seasons exists outside the context of the war. Though the war is touched upon by Keitel's presence, he's really peripheral to the story. Visitors report that Vietnam has more pressing problems than its memories of the war; much of the rubble of that war has been turned into macabre tourist attractions. Where the conflict persists, really, is here in America, among the communities of expatriates.

Though Bui has traveled to Vietnam many times, Bui's father hasn't been back to Vietnam since their trip together. "My father was actually kind of upset, asking me why I wanted to go back to Vietnam so much," Bui says. "It's very tough. I understand my father's point of view. This was the land where he fought. But I see loss on both sides. We're from the south, and we had to escape. But I understand what happened in the north as well, the ideology and the anticolonialist movement."

Three Seasons contrasts traditional ways of life with westernized development. Since the country opened to westerners, it's changed rapidly; luxury hotels are shooting up in neighborhoods full of people who can barely afford to stand in the shadows of these skyscrapers. The film ends with a demonstration of ritual healing and purification: the prostitute is cured of a fever with a folk medicine practice in which the skin is scraped with the dull edge of a spoon, a traditional healing technique called "cau dong," which supposedly draws out toxins.

It's a loaded scene--perhaps the center of the film. It suggests that Three Seasons is made as a protest against the poisonous qualities of money frenzy and development that are rolling over Vietnam. Still, while Bui criticizes the gap between the rich and the poor in Vietnam, he also romanticizes rural life. Who, living in a city (Bui is a New Yorker now), can help romanticizing the farm?

He captures the radiant colors of this verdant country, but he's drinking in the views--it's as if he is too polite as a visitor to have an attitude toward what he's seeing. When Bui leaves the city for the rural episode, the film slows fatally. The metaphorical poetry Dao writes brings out an aggravating point: "My heart has transcended over the bondage of man." But what about the bondage of those girls working on his lotus plantation?

It's strange that Three Seasons is most earthy when it's away from the earth. Bui's city scenes aren't as pretty as the lotus lakes he's photographed so beautifully, but they have the most drama and strength.

Bui has integrity, and a real eye; either is far more than most filmmakers have at 26. If he can develop a more rigorous approach to drama, ideas and acting, he'll fulfill his considerable promise. Bui is already busy on the follow-up project, a film set in Hong Kong, which will not, he stresses, be about Vietnam. He's also producing his brother's upcoming film, about the experience of South Vietnamese émigrés in the American refugee camps.

Ultimately, the language and landscapes of Vietnam in Three Seasons may be enough for viewers who, like Bui, haven't forgotten their homeland. You can see that it must be an unhealable wound for them. Despite the poverty, Vietnam has, in Bui's camera, aspects of a lost paradise.

Three Seasons (PG-13; 113 min.), directed by Tony Bui, written by Bui and Timothy Linh Bui, photographed by Richard Horowitz and starring Don Duong and Harvey Keitel, opens Friday at Camera One in San Jose and the Guild in Palo Alto.

[ San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the May 6-12, 1999 issue of Metro.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.