Photo by Anne FishbeinIN RECENT YEARS, THE VIETNAM THAT INHABITS the popular American imagination has morphed from the war-torn backdrop for the martyrdom of veterans like Born on the Fourth of July's Ron Kovic and the heroic antics of fighting machines like Rambo, to the luxuriously exotic destinations of films such as Tran Anh Hung's Cyclo and the best-selling CD-ROM Passage to Vietnam. With Vietnam's recent economic transformation, however, there's a need to re-imagine the country, and Tony Bui's Three Seasons does just that.
The first American feature to be shot in Vietnam, Three Seasons represents not only a new generation's view of Vietnam, but Vietnam's re-invention as a center for hyperbolic capitalist enterprise. With its lavish photography and archetypal characters, the film works as both a gentle conciliatory venture between nations and generations, and as an interestingly complex reflection on the impact of capitalism. But the 26-year-old Bui, perhaps â for good reason, wants to keep attention focused on his filmmaking rather than on his politics, and he avidly insists that the film has no political subtext. "I'm making a film about these people's lives," he says. "It's a personal journey. That's it. I have no other motive."
Bui, who left Saigon with his family in the mid-'70s when he was 2, grew up in the Silicon Valley, where his father owned a chain of video stores. Bui had 50,000 movies at his disposal, and he watched everything he could. After high school, he attended Loyola Marymount University, taking courses in European cinema and the Fifth Generation Chinese filmmakers that would radically change his sense of cinema. Then, at age 19, Bui returned to Vietnam to visit his grandparents. He hated the country -- the heat, the humidity, the primitive conditions -- but couldn't stop thinking about it. Bui returned again and this time fell in love, eventually shooting a short film that would serve as a trial run for Three Seasons.
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"I didn't have any money," Bui says of his first trips to Vietnam. "If I had been older, I probably would have been living in the hotels and eating in nice restaurants, and my entire perception would have been different. But I didn't, so I got to know the street kids pretty well, and I got to hear their stories." These stories became the foundation for Three Seasons, which revolves around four working-class characters struggling to find their place in Saigon as the country makes the transition from socialism to capitalism. Bui sketches their world as one positioned very much on the outside of the luxury hotels, and in this sense the film counters more inviting images of Vietnam as a trendy tourist spot.
At the same time, however, Bui has constructed his characters as almost romantic icons of universal humanity. "Every film that deals with a Third World country deals with the hardships and the negative aspects of poverty," he explains. "I had to touch on some of that, but the film to me was about the greater sense of life that I felt when I was in Vietnam. Vietnam is not a country that is still at war and filled with animosity and bitterness. It's a country at great peace, and there is this incredible spirit -- an incredible sense of poetry, beauty and magic."
Because his father had left the country for political reasons, the Vietnamese government was wary of the kind of film Bui would make. "We had to get the script approved by the Ministry of Culture," he says, "and there was a censor on the set." On the other side, Bui's own community in Northern California worried about possible government influence: "My dad, who brought us here, was very cautious. He wanted to be sure that I hadn't fallen under any influence from the Vietnamese government. Each side had its worries. It was an interesting tightrope to walk."
Although Bui's insistence that his film is about people and not politics has perhaps become a useful mantra, a necessity in negotiating divergent interests, Three Seasons can't help but be political. The struggle of the characters to find a place in the new Vietnam functions as an allegory for the country's own position relative to larger nations, and the very beauty and magic that Bui finds so alluring serve to re-invent Vietnam for an American audience composed of possible consumers. Bui's apoliticism may be naiveté, or perhaps just a savvy understanding of his own potential as a hot commodity. He's currently being wooed by major studios and various stars, but says he's too busy producing his brother's directorial debut to pay much attention. "I want to keep doing work," says Bui, "that would never get done otherwise."