Photo by Peter Stone

TIME STANDS STILL IN TONY BUI'S THREE SEASONS, and the feeling is so right that the film as a whole evokes Robert Frost's definition of a good poem: “A momentary stay against confusion.” The place is present-day Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, despite the massive luxury hotels for tourists that proliferate with names like the Saigon Rose. Everywhere the ghosts of long-ago French and Americans haunt the architecture.

Bui invites us into a trio of lives. Kien An (Nguyen Ngoc Hiep) is a peasant girl who harvests lotus blossoms outside the city, in the service of a mysterious patron. Hai (Don Duong) is a cyclo driver who takes a tender interest in a prostitute he rescues from a pair of attackers. Last and, fittingly, least is Hager (Harvey Keitel), a solitary chain-smoking American whom Hai irritably notices while pedaling by on his rounds.

Hager is the still point at the center of this turning panorama. He has a straight-forward goal — he's trying to find the half-Vietnamese daughter he left behind over a quarter of a century ago, when he was a G.I. Hager also has the least screen time of any important character, but thanks to the leashed-in fury that defines Keitel's screen presence, his ache burns like a stick of incense, lending atmosphere to the dramas of the other characters. Even when he himself is nowhere to be seen, Hager prompts you to notice that a number of young Vietnamese have phantom hints of American ancestry in their faces: freckled noses, light eyes, loose grins. Kien An, taking her place among the workers at the lotus farm, has enough echoes of the former soldier in her fox-shaped profile that one may even assume she's his daughter, though this could as easily be a false lead. The possibility writer-director Bui pursues most vividly is not that this or that person is related by blood, but that all of us are related in spirit.

The lotus farm, a wide lake of white blossoms surrounding a darkened temple on stilts, condenses the whole of a civilization's reality into one sacramental image. When the women picking blossoms break into song, it's to make work go swiftly; when Kien An does (singing about a silkworm who eats leaves “to make a tapestry of the past”), it's because the sheer beauty of the place she's in can be addressed in no other way. Her voice carries powerfully and attracts the attention of her mysterious boss, Teacher Dao (Tran Manh Cuong), a former poet who sits by himself in the darkened temple to hide his leprosy. Dao has lost his fingers; when he hears Kien An sing, he summons her inside to take dictation. The intricate music of his rhyming verse cuts right through the subtitles.

Words carry great weight in this world. Hai the cyclo doesn't write, but he reads, intensively plugging away at a thick paperback, one word of whose title is printed in bold red. A Maoist tract? A book of verse by Teacher Dao? More consuming still is his romantic, perhaps hopeless, pursuit of Lan the prostitute (Zoë Bui). “Have you ever been inside one of those places,” she taunts him — meaning the luxury hotels where she plies her trade. “It's a different world in there,” a world she plans to be part of, if she can bag a foreign husband. Hai's inward steadiness fascinates her, and their tense courtship powers the story's forward motion, as well as its moral argument.

Bui, born in Vietnam, escaped to America with his parents at age 2 and has only returned to Vietnam as an adult. This may explain why Three Seasons so successfully envisions that country with a child's unjudging gaze. When Hai offers his red-themed book to Lan — on a street whose trees are shedding red blossoms in delirious abundance — the enigmatic point seems less a Marxist sermon than an affirmation of the positive role revolutionary politics have played in winning the Vietnamese people dignity and autonomy. This is in direct, pointed contradiction to all those skyrocketing pleasure palaces going up on all sides of the fascinating, Havana-like colonial ruins. Communism and capitalism are visibly battling for Saigon's soul.

Keitel — in real life an ex-Marine — is the film's executive producer, and here continues his admirable second career of sponsoring new filmmakers. As an actor, he has a shining moment: that instant when, thinking all is lost in the search for his daughter, he comes across a Vietnamese bar girl whose distinct American features rivet him where he sits. His shocked expression, palpably inquiring if this could be his daughter, trembling with the recognition that she's somebody's daughter in any case, grief-stricken at the life to which she's been abandoned — is one of Keitel's finest moments in any film, as pure and unmasked as Kien An's song among the lotuses, because it comes from the same place. Life's mystery simply cannot be answered in any other way than in such silence, such grief, such heroic attention.

THREE SEASONS | Written and directed by TONY BUI | Produced by JASON KLIOT, JOANA VICENTE and BUI | Released by October Films At the Landmark Cecchi Gori Fine Arts Theater

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