While director Tony Bui's Three Seasons was filming in Vietnam--becoming the first American movie shot there since the war--two other foreign film sets were shut down by Vietnamese censors. That Bui's debut feature survived inspection isn't surprising, given the Vietnamese-born, American-raised filmmaker's stated intention "to bring [the] humanity [of the Vietnamese] out in a way that hasn't been shown, the universality of the human spirit." Producer Jason Kliot put it more plainly: "It was important that the film be affirmative from the Vietnamese perspective." These goals are worthy, obviously. But Three Seasons, financed and distributed by the big-time indie outfit October Films, is so beautifully positive that its characters struggle to exhibit imperfect "humanity." They aren't people so much as notes in a kind of uplifting hymn.
And as such, they enact familiar structural phrases. The film is composed of three interwoven Saigon stories, which march together through the classic three-act structure of cinema: statement of theme, heightening of conflict, and climactic resolution. In the first tale, a young woman (Ngoc Hiep) comes to a conventlike lotus plantation, where her singing eventually coaxes the mysterious, reclusive master, Teacher Dao (Manh Cuong), out of his solitary exile. In another plot, cyclo driver Hai (Don Duong) tries to sway ambitious prostitute Lan (Zoé Bui) with his love. In the last, diminutive orphan Woody (Nguyen Huu Duoc) and erstwhile American G.I. James Hager (Harvey Keitel) both search for a way home: Street vendor Woody must recover his lost suitcase of gum and cigarettes before returning to his pimp; James must make peace with the daughter he abandoned long ago.
In other words, Three Seasons is a multiple-car wreck of Oliver!, Pretty Woman, and Kung Fu, and without messy injuries. The 26-year-old writer-director, who studied film at Loyola Marymount, clearly knows his Hollywood plot clichés and isn't shy about exporting them. Which makes you wonder how honestly Three Seasons can claim to show a Vietnamese point of view, for all its English subtitles. Are Bui's visions of closure--i.e., the eventual redemptions granted the G.I., the prostitute of capitalism, and the exiled poet--truly Vietnamese dreams, or American fantasies? I don't know. I will say that the uniformity of these major chord resolutions seems forced, as if Bui desired a tidy end of the sort that's easy to walk away from.
It doesn't help that Three Seasons sports such relentlessly pretty images. The lake of lotuses surrounding Teacher Dao's floating temple is clogged with creamy blossoms and the sweet song of the worker women. Scenes in the city, where characters are either sweating buckets or doused in downpours, do not convey the flavor of big-city stink and grit. The poor sections of Saigon appear so quaintly picturesque, they could be located on a Hollywood backlot. The exquisite cinematography by Lisa Rinzler (who shot Menace II Society) exacerbates the impression that this film is less of Vietnam than for it, like some kind of motivational video.
The sales pitch in this case concerns the maintenance of tradition in the face of the West's increasing commercial presence. (Oh, irony--the West warning the East off crass materialism through a slick new product.) Three Seasons' marginal characters interact with the monied class, but, with the exception of the prostitute, they remain outside the cool hotels and restaurants, noses pressed to the glass. Bui is never more heavy-handed than when he shows the creeping influence of American brand capitalism: real lotus sales threatened by the marketing of plastic models; scenes from Wild West shoot-'em-ups projected onto Woody's tiny body after he stumbles through a movie screen; Woody (named after the American cartoon character on his T-shirt!) drunk on James's beer, which leads to the disappearance of his suitcase of trinkets. Bui's lesson at its most basic: Don't swallow.
That's some tricky advice, given that every livelihood here--including Bui's--depends on the tourist trade. And Bui is short on alternatives: What will Lan make money at besides prostitution? The narrative arc suggests that the Vietnamese build an ark and wait out the flood: All of Bui's atomistic agents find somebody to love, platonically or erotically, by film's cheery end; and, strangely, they're all opposite-sex pairings right down to Woody and his little girlfriend. I'm not sure what is meant by this. Go forth and multiply? The people united in heterosexuality will never be defeated? Or maybe it's as simple as this: Kid couples are cute, love stories satisfy, and no whiff of gayness, please, because I want people to buy, buy, buy. (Coincidentally or not, Three Seasons won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance.)
Certainly, Bui isn't unique in building cinematic conflict and resolution around romantic relationships. His rapturous finale joins a line of happily-ever-afters reaching back into the misty mountains of human prehistory. I don't mind that Three Seasons envisions a happy ending for Vietnam, but I do mind that its vision is so typically and cheaply bought, in a way that is typically and cheaply American. (Who's the prostitute now?) Bui's characters don't earn grace so much as fall into it miraculously. Even that overworked artifice wouldn't irritate except that the miracles themselves are clichés: the compassionate john who just wants to give the prostitute time alone; the sought-after Holy Grail discovered, by chance, at the last possible moment.
Three Seasons' machinations so announce themselves ("Incoming third act--duck!") that you can see through them completely to wonder about their purpose. The cinematic journey to joyfulness is well-trodden: Why do people come back, again and again, to relive it? Perhaps they're attracted to the ritual of it, the time-out-of-time ceremony in which the star gods act out human sin and salvation again and again into perpetuity. Temporal social and economic inequalities disappear from view, displaced by the practiced, abstract gestures of the rite. Led through the familiar service by the director deity, the audience feels comforted, comfortable. What's the price of a ticket to these moments in the light, knowing you are loved?
Three Seasons starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.
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