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The Vietnam News

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Local hero
A return home garners many surprises--and an award-winning film for Vietnamese-American director Tony Bui

LOS ANGELES - Earlier this year, a film by a 26-year-old Vietnamese-American, Tony Bui, took the independent film world by storm. His feature, Three Seasons, won the top award, the Grand Jury Prize, at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. It was a surprising choice. Sundance is known for its tough, edgy tastes, but Bui's film is a lyrical, if bittersweet, look at modern Vietnamese life, told through four stories that have the romanticized quality of fables. Also surprising was the fact that the film received the audience award as well--thus, it won over both critics and audiences. Certainly, Three Seasons gives us a completely fresh take on a country so tragically riven by war: It portrays a society in which individuals search not only for economic survival, but also for love, connections, and grace. For them the war is a faint, diminishing echo, heard far more loudly by Americans than Vietnamese.

"The entire country is about moving forward and progressing," Bui says, "and I think they're more at peace with the past conflict than we are, we Americans. We still have a lot of guilt about it, a lot of frustrations." Born in Vietnam, Bui went to the United States with his family when he was two. Growing up in Sunnyvale, California, he was encouraged by his mother to go back to his native land. His first visit was not a success: He was 19 and couldn't stand it--the heat, the congestion, the pollution. But then he went back again, and again, and began to discover his roots. As a student studying film at Loyola Marymount University, Bui's sojourns in Vietnam were eked out on a shoestring budget. He stayed in private homes and spent a lot of time "hanging around on the streets," talking with cyclo (trishaw) drivers and watching poor people trying to make ends meet. He also began to form the ideas that would eventually become his films.

In 1995 he completed a short film called Yellow Lotus, starring his uncle Don Duong, a well-known actor in Vietnam who also features in his current film. Bui calls Yellow Lotus "an earlier incarnation of Three Seasons--a peasant comes to the city, a man trying to find his place amid this change." The earlier film was shown at the Telluride and Sundance Film Festivals and won several awards. In 1996 he was accepted into Sundance's Writer's and Director's Labs, and the result was the script for Three Seasons. Its $2 million production cost was funded by Good Machine, a New York production company that has backed some of Taiwanese director Ang Lee's films.

The film's title comes from the idea that south Vietnam, where the film was shot, has two seasons, the dry and the wet. For Bui, the third season is the one of growth-- "the season of hope, the season of life and poetry and music." Each story within the film is set in a different season: The story of the cyclo driver is set in the hot, dry season and is full of the warmth of yellows and oranges; the little boy vendor is set in the wet season of blues and greys; and the growth season is the backdrop for the story of Teacher Dao and the young woman who becomes his temporary confidante. The story of James Hager, the ex-GI, takes place across the time-frame of the others.

From the start Bui insisted that the film be made in Vietnamese and in Vietnam--a tough battle due to the traditional prejudice American audiences have against foreign-language films, as well as the logistical complications of shooting in Vietnam. But Bui, backed by his producers, got his way. Three Seasons was thus the first American film to be made in Vietnam since the fall of Saigon in 1975. When he took his American crew there for filming, some were fearful of possible resentment and reprisals. After all, didn't the Vietnamese hate the Americans for the years of fighting, for bombing their country?

But that was one problem that didn't materialize, Bui says. "They're so past that--they had 1,000 years of war. Before the Americans they fought so many people, after the Americans they fought people--the Chinese, the Cambodians." With his fresh, open face and small ponytail, Bui is the very picture of Californian health. He talks quickly, his words slurring over each other as if his thoughts cannot get out fast enough. "The American conflict was one war in their lives, and they've moved on."

He did run into numerous other difficulties, though. The Ministry of Culture had to approve the script, and Bui had innumerable meetings over it--as well as being obliged to show the rough cuts of each day's shooting to officials. "They're very respectful and kind, but they're tough, to the point they read way too much into everything," Bui recalls. "I understood where they were coming from--ultimately they want a film to portray the country in a decent way." In 1995 the authorities had been infuriated by the release of French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung's Cyclo, which turned out to be extremely violent, and they wanted to avoid a repeat.

Not surprisingly, Bui's desire to detail the extreme poverty and the prostitution in Ho Chi Minh City was a source of conflict. Fortunately, he points out, "they didn't mind my making a film about the lowest level of society as long as it was moving towards something that was a redemption, some sort of peace, some sort of life. They don't mind so much the darkness as long as it's balanced out by the light."

The characters in Three Seasons are composites of people Bui has met over the years. "These were the people I knew, they were my friends," he says. As seen through the film, they are rather poignant individuals striving for a better life with whatever modest means at hand--whether it's peddling a flashlight, a cyclo ride, or their bodies. Critic Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called this "a movie for any and all seasons, [which] gazes with a sense of beauty and compassion at hard realities without glossing them over."

Bui's focus on the downtrodden and the indigent was deliberate. "I wanted to make a film about those most affected [by change]," the director says. "I wanted to give them a voice. The things they were telling me were so interesting, so different from the way I perceived it growing up in America." Some critics have found Three Seasons overly pretty and sentimentalized, but for Bui, Vietnam is a country of hope.

Since much of film-making is done in a cocoon, opening at Sundance was "very scary and very gratifying," he says. Scary because hardly anyone had seen it before, gratifying because it received a standing ovation. "As the week went by, there was so much buzz about the film that I knew I was accomplishing one of the important parts of the process for me," Bui says, "which was to make a film about some people's lives and to capture the spirit in a way that would be universal." Bui had lived up to what Geoffrey Gilmore, a Sundance official, wrote about the film for the festival catalogue: "With sweeping directorial vision and a powerful poetic narrative, Tony Bui has created an enormously impressive feature debut about the 'new' Vietnam."

This spring the film opened in the United States to equally laudatory reviews. It also drew $2 million at the box office, considered exemplary for a foreign-language film. It is slated to open later this year in Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Taiwan and other Asian countries. Bui is now dodging the temptations of lucrative Hollywood offers which poured in after his Sundance success. He continues to focus on personal projects--producing a film about a Vietnamese refugee camp in the U.S. is one, directing a film about a dying man's search for meaning is another.

"There are definitely stories in my mind which will require a bigger budget," he says, "but right now I want that creative freedom to do what I really want to do. Later maybe I'll get that creative freedom on a larger project after proving myself through a body of work."

Far Eastern Economic Review - August 12, 1999.