Three Seasons (1999) Movie Review

It may shock most Americans to realize that, despite their insistence on holding onto the memories of the Vietnam War, that the Vietnamese people has since left that part of their past behind. Or at least, they don’t show the obsession with it that Americans, and the American media in particular, seems to. It would seem, from an objective point of view, that the Vietnamese have already embraced capitalism, even if they continue the veneer of communism. A country devastated by war no more, Vietnam is a modern country with one foot voluntarily in the tradition and culture of the past and the other foot extending out to modernity, for better or worst.

America’s persistent clinging to the tragedy of the Vietnam War is most epitomized by the character of James Hager (Harvey Keitel), a former American serviceman who returns to Vietnam to locate the daughter he never knew. Perhaps most importantly to the man, he seeks a closure to this chapter in his life. Hager’s story is one of three that runs concurrently. Another story involves Hai (Don Duong), a cyclo driver who becomes infatuated with prostitute Lan (Zoe Bui) after he aids her in a quick getaway. (Cyclos are a combination bicycle and rickshaw.) The third story belongs to Kien An (Ngoc Hiep Nguyen), a young woman brought to work the lotus fields of a secluded poet name Dao (Manh Cuong Tran). Along the way, a street kid name Woody, who sells cheap knockoffs out of a case, keeps showing up.

Made three years before “Green Dragon”, Tony Bui’s “Three Seasons” was highly acclaimed. It won numerous awards at the Sundance film festival for its young, 26-year old writer/director, as well as earning some hardware for its veteran cinematographer Lisa Rinzler (“Pollock”). It could just be that my interest in post-Vietnam War Vietnam is just not very high, because although “Seasons” is obviously a great achievement in cinematography and narrative structure, neither aspect of the film overwhelmed me.

Still, “Three Seasons” is a worthwhile film, if just from the standpoint of introducing the world to modern Vietnam. The movie was financed by American money and shot exclusively in Vietnam with that government’s cooperation. The cast is made of mostly unknowns, with the exception being Harvey Keitel. Unfortunately “Three Seasons'” stories are sometime flat. In particular the sequences with Kien An and the reclusive Dao, who has resigned himself to a life in the shadows because of leprosy. Kien An’s arrival stirs something in Dao, inspiring him to write poems again. Although these sequences offer up the film’s most lyrical visuals, they’re also the film’s dullest.

More interesting is cyclo driver Hai and his courtship of Lan. As Lan dreams of being able to sleep in one of the city’s expensive grand hotels, Hai has his own plans to woo her. Which leads me to this flippant observation: in the movies, when a guy relentless pursues a woman and camps outside her work every night even though she tells him to go away, it’s considered charming; in real life, it’s considered stalking, and restraining orders quickly follow. What Hai does is obviously stalking, and sometimes the whole thing is a bit, well, creepy. Take a scene toward the end, when Hai pays for a night with Lan and instead of sleeping with her asks her to wear a nightgown and sleep in a hotel bed so he can watch. This is supposed to be romantic and charming, but it just seems creepy to me.

To be honest, I don’t know if there’s anything about “Three Seasons” that could be improved upon. Certainly the script by Bui and his brother Timothy lacks subtlety, that much is obvious. The film makes obvious parallels between the modernized cityscape where Hai labors under the scorching sun and the calm, serene lotus field where Kien An works, and time seems suspended. Coca-cola billboards are everywhere, reminding the world once again that Vietnam is just communist in name.

Also, there is no satisfying resolution for Harvey Keitel’s character. At least there isn’t the satisfaction apparent in the Kien An and Hai sequences. I would have liked to see an ending to Hager’s quest, instead of just having the camera pull out from a restaurant window. Perhaps I expect too much, but I think Bui just didn’t care enough about Keitel’s character to end it properly.

“Three Seasons” is a good film, and the stilted acting by most of the unknown cast can be forgiven because they’re unknown for the simple reason that they’re not professional actors. Of the cast, Zoe Bui certainly brightens up the screen, even if co-star Don Duong is sometimes wholly inadequate as Hai, who I still contend is sort of creepy. More could have been done with Keitel’s character, but I suppose his appearance in the movie alone is enough of a contrivance. Speaking purely from nothing more than a guess, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Keitel’s involvement was only meant to satisfy the American moneymen, and had absolutely nothing to do with the story Bui wanted to tell.

Tony Bui (director) / Timothy Linh Bui, Tony Bui (screenplay)
CAST: Zoe Bui …. Lan the Hooker
Manh Cuong Tran …. Teacher Dao
Don Duong …. Hai
Huu Duoc Nguyen …. Woody
Harvey Keitel …. James Hager

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