Vietnam's New Season

The war is not the point, though it is part of the history beautifully evoked in 'Three Seasons.'

May 21, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

by Vietnam floats dreamily between past and future in "Three Seasons," a languidly paced story of interlocking characters in present-day Saigon. This may be the first movie about the contemporary country in which war is not a theme, but just one more element of a rich and complex history.

Stunningly photographed to capture the country's lush physical beauty, colonial architecture and encroaching Americanization, "Three Seasons" feels like a dead-on accurate portrait of Vietnam, even at its most exquisitely impressionistic.

Four stories, each representing an aspect of Vietnam's past, present and future, intersect in "Three Seasons." Kien An (Ngoc Hiep), a young girl working for a mysterious recluse, cultivates white lotus blossoms to sell on Saigon's streets. Hai (Don Duong) carries European tourists from grand hotels to tourist spots in his cyclo, or bicycle taxi. Woody (Nguyen Huu Duoc), a 10-year-old boy, scrapes together money for his family by selling trinkets in bars and street cafes. James Hager (Harvey Keitel), a former G.I., sits outside his hotel every day, hoping to catch a glimpse of the daughter he left behind after the war.

Writer and director Tony Bui, who makes his feature debut here, follows each character slowly, allowing filmgoers the luxury of soaking up the atmosphere in which they move, and which in many cases defines them.

Drifting through a tranquil lotus pond, or moving in a lantern-lit canoe through night mists, Kien An is the movie's strongest anchor to Vietnam's past, evoking a culture of art and spiritual grace that is still visible even beneath the grit and neon of modernity.

When Hai befriends a tough prostitute he, too, seeks to preserve the purest parts of the past, in this case by treating her with the courtly chivalry of an era gone by. Indeed, past is prologue throughout "Three Seasons," in which glimpses of Vietnam's colonial occupation can be seen in Saigon's new four-star hotels, and in which the American invasion is no longer camouflaged in green khaki but in greenbacks. Hager, whom Keitel portrays with more restraint than usual, isn't perceived as an enemy until Woody suspects him of stealing his livelihood.

The metaphor of America as thief is strong but not overplayed by Bui, whose film is the first American-made movie to be made in post-war Vietnam. Among this young director's many talents is a keen sense of calibration, which keeps even the most melodramatic situations in "Three Seasons" from mawkishness.

Still, it's as a visual stylist that Bui makes his biggest impact, and with cinematographer Lisa Rinzler he has managed to bring scenes of extraordinary poetry to the screen.

Among the unforgettable sequences in "Three Seasons" are the ethereal scenes on the lotus pond, the constantly circulating cacophony of the Saigon square where Hai plies his trade and a miraculous walk through an avenue of trees shedding blood-red blossoms.

These images, at once beautiful and sad, finally rescue the image of Vietnam, which to most Westerners has been defined by war. With equanimity and a modest sense of hope, "Three Seasons" conveys an enlarged, enriched and, one hopes, restored picture.

`Three Seasons'

Starring Don Duong, Nguyen Ngoc Hiep, Tran Manh Cuong, Harvey Keitel, Zoe Bui, Nguyen Huu Duoc

Directed by Tony Bui

Rated: PG-13 (thematic elements)

Running time: 113 minutes

Released by October Films

Sun score ****

Pub Date: 5/21/99

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