Three Seasons

THREE SEASONS IS NOMINATED FOR BEST FILM EXPOSÉ OF 1999
With the war in Yugoslavia rapidly turning a modern country into a Third World nation, release of Three Seasons, a film about contemporary Vietnam, seems unusually well timed. Despite the fact that the United States was allied with Ho Chi Minh during World War II, Vietnam was engaged in civil war from 1945 to 1975, and for the last decade of that war was bombed and invaded by Americans who believed that they were helping a people to stop Communism. Then for another 15 years, Vietnam was subject to an embargo and not allowed by the West and its allies to recover from the damage or the wounds of the war. Although American documentaries have been coming out of Vietnam for the last fifteen years, and the French have given us Indochine (1992) and The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), Americans have been obsessed with films featuring Rambos and anti-Rambos. Now, youthful director-author-coproducer Vietnamese-American Tony Bui gives us a very different update of Vietnam in this film through the lives of several of its unfortunate victims. Of his three seasons—birth, life, and death—he focuses most on the time between birth and death when life must have meaning to be worth living. Shot in the environs of Ho Chi Minh City, we see the beauty of nature and the ugliness of human settlements, with a haunting trace of the American presence for the nostalgic. In the beginning of the film, we observe Kien An, a female orphan (played by Ngoc Hiep Nguyen), whose application to be a lotus picker and street seller has just been accepted; in due course, she finds redemption in translating poems of Teacher Dao, her employer (played by Manh Cuong Tran), who is disabled by leprosy, while her fellow lotus-pickers are content to enjoy singing as they work. Among the pedicab drivers, who await customers outside opulent hotels, Hai (played by Don Duong) finds redemption by courting Lan, a prostitute (played by Zoe Bui); lacking families, they are ultimately drawn together by his tenderness. Woody, a five-year-old urchin (played by Huu Duoc Nguen), tries to sell junk trinkets to survive, and has to endure rudeness from hotel management while pursuing his craft, but he finds joy in a game of soccer with boys his age in the rain. A haunted American war veteran, James Hager (played by Harvey Keitel, who is also the executive producer of the film), returns to claim his daughter, an Amerasian whose rejection by Vietnamese society means that she can only obtain income as a prostitute for foreigners. Some of the lives of the characters crisscross, but that is not the point of the film, which challenges us to discover a universal message—that people make mistakes and suffer as a result, but life can still have meaning if we can just be kind and help one another. With cinematography that reminds us of last year’s The Thin Red Line, the film Three Seasons was the rage of this year’s Sundance Festival, winning the Grand Jury Prize, the award for Best Cinematography, and the Audience Award. Censors in Vietnam cleared the film in its present form, which appears to tell Americans, in Hager’s words, to find “some peace with this place” by returning. However, the film is designed to be unsettling to Americans, who are collectively responsible for the tragically fragmented society that we view and could, if motivated by unselfish impulses, claim the children that they fathered, adopt adorable orphans and urchins seeking a better life, and provide humanitarian assistance to a highly cultured and literate country that heroically refused to be “bombed into the Stone Age.” Many will walk out of the theatre baffled, unmoved, and unimpressed—except at Sundance, where Three Seasons received a standing ovation at its first screening. As a film exposing the reality of contemporary Vietnam, released on the date that marked the 24th anniversary of the end of Vietnam’s civil war, Three Seasons is the year’s first film nominated for a Political Film Society award as an exposé that truly brings new facts to light relevant to a public policy problem that calls for more action by the United States.