Living on the edge in 'Three Seasons'

By Alan Back
May 28, 1999

So much pizza, so little time Studio: October Films MPAA: PG-13 Starring: Don Duong, Nguyen Ngoc Hiep, Tran Manh Cuong, Harvey Keitel Running time: 113 minutes Language: Vietnamese (English subtitles) Rating: 4/5
What if you were to wake up tomorrow morning and suddenly find yourself pushed to the edge of society? What would you do if you saw that progress was leaving you behind? Rookie filmmaker Tony Bui tackles these questions in Three Seasons, exploring the changes that have taken place in his native Vietnam during the past two and a half decades.
The film won the Audience Award, the Best Cinematography Award, and the Grand Jury Prize at the 1999 Sundance Festival-the first time one piece has won all three honors. It is also the first full-length American feature to complete production in Vietnam since the war.
The story opens with Kien An (Nguyen Ngoc Hiep), a woman who has been hired to work the lotus fields of Teacher Dao (Tran Manh Cuong). For years the old master has hidden in an old temple, ashamed of his illness and refusing to write the poetry that brought him fame.
Kien An's work songs attract his attention, and before long she finds herself drawn to his old poems and agreeing to serve as his hands so that he can begin to write again. An unlikely partnership develops, with Dao's illness imposing the greatest test.
In another part of the city, a cyclo driver named Hai (Don Duong) is putting in another hard day of pedaling through the crowded streets to get his passengers where they need to go. Business as usual goes out the window when he runs into a hooker named Lan (Zoë Bui) who works the upscale hotels.
Does he stand a chance with her? No, but that doesn't stop him from trying to be a gentleman and giving her the occasional ride home from wherever she works each night. Lan is caught between the opulent debasement of the tricks she turns and Hai's threadbare, but honest, attempts to treat her like a human being.
Out on the rain-soaked back streets, "Woody" (Nguyen Huu Duoc), a small boy so nicknamed for his tattered Woody Woodpecker shirt, is trying to shift some trinkets in bars and hotel lobbies. In one of the seedier watering holes, he runs across James Hager (Harvey Keitel), who is on a quest to find the daughter he left behind when his tour of duty in Vietnam ended.
Three Seasons progresses much the same way as 200 Cigarettes; a number of short stories unfold at their own pace. Instead of forcing all the plots to converge at some point, though, Bui connects them through minor or incidental events. While on a break, Hai sees Hager lounging outside a storefront and mentions this to his fellow drivers; later, Hai falls to talking with Kien An about the lotus business; still later, Hager buys a bunch of flowers from her. These details, and others like them, help to join the stories in a natural manner.
The story of Dao's seclusion may be a bit of a cliche-think Mel Gibson in The Man Without a Face-but it's still handled well, and it provides one of the most moving scenes in the film. Kien An is in the temple, reading aloud from an old book of his poems, and his slow, gravelly voice picks it up as he eases his wheelchair forward into the light: time for the hiding to come to an end.
Another heavy hit comes in the development of the relationship between Hai and Lan. When he stops at her home to talk to her, she finally decides she's had enough of his behavior and hits him with what she thinks is a shot of cold water: "I am a whore, and you are my cyclo driver. That's all." This is the last thing she says to him before keeling over from heatstroke-and waking up to find this man, whom she just insulted cruelly, putting her back together. Anyone who would do that is decent all the way down.
The one thing going against this movie is Hager's story. It seems a bit too contrived to be believable: if your father had been gone for nearly all your life, would you be willing to just drop everything and let him back in? And if you were that father, how easy do you think it would be to find your daughter in a city the size of Saigon, with nothing but an old photo to help you?
Still, two solid successes out of three is nothing to sneeze at, considering that this is Bui's first outing as a feature film director. Three Seasons is worth seeing as a show of future potential. Three Seasons is playing at the Lefont Garden Hills Theater on Peachtree.

Copyright © 1999 by Gregory S. Scherrer, Editor and by the Student Publications Board

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