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Greg Metzger

Saigon Stories

Looking for family values? Try postwar Vietnam.

Three Seasons marks a key point in American cinema. Winner of the Best Drama award at the 1999 Sundance festival, Three Seasons is the first American movie to be set in Vietnam after the war, and the first American movie ever to be acted in Vietnamese, by Vietnamese actors. On top of this, the movie is directed by a Vietnamese American, Tony Bui.

Bui, only 26, carries these historical and cultural burdens with remarkable grace in a movie that is at once true to the particularity of postwar Saigon life and universal in human qualities. Rather than focusing on a single protagonist, the film follows the interlocking stories of several characters. A young woman, Kien An (Ngoc Hiep), is hired to pick white lotuses in the rivers outside of Saigon and then sell them in the big city. Her hard life is complicated when the reclusive master of the field, Teacher Dao (Manh Cuong), is attracted by her singing. In the center of the city, Hai (Don Duong), a cyclo driver, falls for a prostitute, Lan (Zoe Bui), whom he often sees departing from the new hotels in the city. Another central character is Woody, a young boy who wanders the streets selling gum, lighters, and other trinkets. The only American in the movie is James Hager (Harvey Keitel), who is searching for the daughter he left behind in the war. He is the only character for whom the war is a present concern. The others are preoccupied with surviving in today's Vietnam.

Bui tells the story of each character well. Kien An's master turns out to be a leper who has lost his face and fingers to the disease. Her compassion toward him in his final months is portrayed with realism and soul. Woody is another in a long line of movie street urchins, but his story is told without manipulation. It is his liveliness, not the destitution in which he finds himself, that creates empathy for him. Harvey Keitel's work is remarkably understated. It is refreshing to see a star performing for a first-time director in a film likely to draw little box-office attention. And when his character is called upon to embody the feelings of a GI upon his first meeting with the child he left behind, Keitel delivers.

But at the heart of the film is the improbable love story of Hai and Lan. Here Bui displays a genuinely multicultural vision (as opposed to the nebulous sort we see in most films) that, if built upon, will make him a director of considerable note in the years to come. Under Bui's guidance, this romance becomes richly symbolic of Vietnam and its postwar struggles.

Hai, the cyclo driver, is an emblem of the common working man. His is a difficult job, requiring the driver to ride a bicycle with a large seat at the front to carry the passenger through the packed city streets under the hot Asian sun. It is a job not desired but certainly respected. Prostitution, on the other hand, is a profession viewed with considerable disdain, and the proliferation of prostitution during the war has only heightened the shame associated with it in Vietnam, where it suggests a subservience to decadent but powerful foreigners. Indeed, the fact that a Vietnamese woman was being portrayed as a prostitute in yet another American film raised the ire of many of my Vietnamese friends before they had even seen the film.

Bui knew that he risked alienating his Vietnamese American audience, but he tells the story of the unlikely lovers in a way that symbolizes the resilience of Vietnamese culture. In the movie's key scene, Hai welcomes Lan to his tiny apartment, a sharp contrast to her encounters in the marble hotels. This is the moment the movie has been building toward. She takes off her blouse and lies down on her stomach on the small bed. Hai begins to rub her back with what looks to be water. Everyone viewing the scene expects a Hollywood ending in which Hai and Lan's mutual "love" is consummated by passionate sex.

Instead, Hai begins to scratch Lan's back with a spoon (cao gio), digging into her flesh with it and marking her back with many lines. She is expecting this; indeed, it is clear that this is what they had agreed would happen. Hai is using a traditional Vietnamese treatment for physical sickness to treat the sickness of her soul. Traditional Vietnamese medicine teaches that sickness in the body is often the result of a spiritual malaise that must be given exit through the scraped skin. Hai is purging Lan's body not only of the pollution of prostitution but also of her desire to advance herself through culturally disgraceful methods. Her sensuality is desexualized, and her beauty is restored.

For viewers knowledgeable about the cultural legacy of Vietnam, this powerful scene has an extra dimension. The Tale of Kieu, a nineteenth-century narrative poem widely regarded as the masterpiece of Vietnamese literature, includes the story of a prostitute who is eventually set free from prostitution by a noble man. In the poem she praises him thus: "If ever my soiled body's cleansed of stains, / I'll thank a gentleman, a noble soul / … / A home, a refuge—what won't you give me? / My honor lives again as of tonight." American audiences, whose glimpses of Vietnamese culture have often come heavily flavored by Apocalypse Now and its ilk, may be surprised to learn the extent to which traditional values of marriage and family are still strongly present in Vietnamese society. Three Seasons evokes that cultural legacy brilliantly. For this achievement alone the movie deserves your careful viewing.

Another strong element of the film is the cinematography. Of course, as anyone who has been to Vietnam knows, it would be hard not to produce a visually stunning film set there. But whereas most films seem to use the physical surroundings for interludes, to set scenes and change pace, Three Seasons does more. The lotus fields; the crowded, dusty streets of Saigon with their choking poverty and Western neon signs; the opulence of the newly built five-star hotels—all of these diverse settings are exploited by Bui and cinematographer Lisa Rinzler to communicate the many layers of social life. The physical surroundings become a character in the movie, not a set.

Bui accomplishes this in part by showing great restraint and confidence with the camera. He allows a scene the extra seconds needed for it to sink in, and he is not afraid of silence. This pace at first felt boring to me, raised as I have been on the high action of Hollywood films. But by allowing the scenery to envelope the viewer, Bui and Rinzler are also giving the human actors the space to communicate their emotions. We feel the wonder of the street urchin Woody when he happens into the lobby of a magnificent hotel. And when Kien An is allowed to meet her boss, the owner of the lotus fields, the pace of the film allows us to experience with her the horror of his leprosy, which stands in sharp contrast to the lush scenery just outside the house. Bui and Renzler know that the images are speaking, and they have the maturity to allow them to be heard.

Make no mistake, Three Seasons is an art-house film. I found myself at the end of the movie asking, What was that movie about? But this was quickly followed by the question, What was this movie not about? When you find yourself asking that second question, you know the movie has crossed that fuzzy line between entertainment and true artistic accomplishment. Bui rewards the patient viewer with a rich visual, intellectual, and spiritual experience, rare in American films. Reward him with your viewing.

Greg Metzger is a writer living near Boston.

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