My years as a movie reviewer have taught me this: beware of films pushed as "events" or "firsts" of whatever kind – particularly on the arthouse circuit, where such claims often attempt to slyly compensate for a lack of art, craft or material resources.
Three Seasons comes to us touted as "the first American film shot in Vietnam", centred on Vietnamese people and their stories, and directed by a young Vietnamese-American, Tony Bui.
The film takes a humanist rather than overtly political route. It records the effects of a social structure on its ordinary citizens, all in their own ways lost or dispossessed. We view a range of daily activities in the lives of a flower picker (Ngoc Hiep), a street seller (Nguyen Huu Duoc), a prostitute (Zoe Bui), a cyclo driver (Don Duong) and an American ex-soldier (Harvey Keitel).
Four stories slowly form, all concerned with the possibilities of humbly making an identity for oneself, and forging a connection with another. Renewal and reconciliation are the keynotes: those tiny but powerful experiences that allow a sense of hope or rebirth even within generally miserable circumstances.
The flower picker is called upon to read to a once-glamorous poet (Manh Cuong) now stricken by leprosy. The cyclo driver develops an impossible, innocent love for the prostitute. The street seller, only a small boy, tramps around looking for his stolen wares, eventually meeting a little girl much like himself. The American – in the most obviously allegorical of the stories – searches for his long-lost daughter conceived during the war.
Keitel has a smaller role than the publicity might lead one to expect but, since he serves as executive producer, he clearly has a personal stake in the project. Unfortunately, whenever Keitel is called upon to be a mere presence rather than a fully fleshed-out character, he becomes extraordinarily self-conscious, making heavy weather of even the slightest gesture or most mundane line.
Three Seasons is the kind of movie routinely praised for its cultural specialness, noble sentiments, and "beautiful photography". And there are indeed some isolated, striking moments: white lotuses filling the screen as the pickers sing; the two children silently hanging out together in rainy, tawdry alleyways; the understated revelation of the leper's former youthful glory. As a whole, however, the film falls far short of its ambitions.
Bui aims for a slow, gentle, meditative, unspectacular style, reminiscent of Tran Anh Hung's The Scent of Green Papaya (1993) or the forgotten work of Lam Lê (Dust of the Empire, 1984), once hailed by the French magazine Positif as "the Vietnamese Cocteau". Bui, however, lacks the mastery of his predecessors: he withholds displays of sentiment on screen so as to better prime emotion in the viewer, but the necessary dramatic release never truly arrives.
Three Seasons has a glacial, even sanctimonious air. Ultimately, it is a film that rides more on its good intentions than any realised artistic achievement.
© Adrian Martin May 1999