Vietnam Visions

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Editor's Note: The following article was published in TIME on December 1, 1997. We thought we would dust it off for our online readers after hearing that Three Seasons, the story about a kinder, gentler Vietnam, had won three awards at the recent Sundance Film Festival, including the two main drama prizes and one for cinematography. Tony Bui, a young American filmmaker and the film's director, had wanted to tell a story about a Vietnam not at war. "Growing up in a suburb in America, every vision of Vietnam was about the war," Bui, now 26, told TIME in late '97. "And all the Vietnamese characters, they were anonymous, interchangeable faces, usually running through the dark and pointing guns." Fifteen months later, a triumphant--and stunned--Bui, in Park City, Utah, to pick up his award, said it was important to "see what the hopes and dreams of the people today are." His film did just that, and then some. Read on for a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Three Seasons and to learn more about what motivated Bui.

Of all the post-war Hollywood movies about Vietnam, only a few have scenes that were actually shot there. Sylvester Stallone's Rambo? He was looking for prisoners of war in Canada. Marlon Brando's Kurtz in Apocalypse Now? He brooded in the Philippines. Robin Williams' disc jockey from Good Morning, Vietnam? Good morning, Thailand. In those and other films the steamy jungles of the Mekong Delta and the urban mazes of Saigon were represented by stand-in locations. That bothered Tony Bui, a young American filmmaker. So he decided not only to shoot his first feature film in Vietnam, but also to tell a story about a country not at war. "Growing up in a suburb in America, every vision of Vietnam was about the war," says Bui, 25. "And all the Vietnamese characters, they were anonymous, interchangeable faces, usually running through the dark and pointing guns."

So there are no M-16s, helicopters, or burning villages in Three Seasons, the independent film that Bui began shooting in Ho Chi Minh City this month on a shoestring budget of $2 million. Although one of its main characters is an American war veteran, Bui's story is about a kinder, gentler Vietnam. The film follows three stories of working class people: a pedicab driver named Hai who befriends a prostitute named Lan; a lotus picker named Kien who falls under the spell of a secluded monk; and two street children who cling to one another. Set against the backdrop of contemporary Ho Chi Minh City, the trilogy strikes a theme of lost individuals searching for companionship, love and solace in a world where family and cultural ties are unraveling. "What Tony saw two years ago when he wrote the screenplay is disappearing before his eyes," says Jason Kliot, the film's co-producer. Indeed, after filming in front of small shop-houses, the crew returned the next week to discover the facades being demolished for a widened road.

Bui's sentimentality is surprising because, although born in Saigon--now Ho Chi Minh City--he lived there only two years before his family fled the advancing communist forces in 1975. "I don't remember any of it," Bui says. His father, an intelligence officer who worked with the U.S. military and would have faced years in re-education camps, took the family to Sunnyvale, Calif. and started a chain of video stores. When Bui's mother sent him on a 1992 trip to Vietnam, he recalls, "I hated it. I hated it with a passion, and I went home after two weeks."

It was only later, back in California, that his obsession with Vietnam developed. The stunning visual images of Ho Chi Minh City, a playfully chaotic town where life's daily dramas unfold on the sidewalk, gripped his imagination. The noise, sultry weather and unpredictability of life that had bothered him while he was there began to seem alluring once he was gone. But can a young Vietnamese-American who spent two decades away from his homeland convincingly tell a story about Vietnam? "I would say he almost understands it," says Bui's uncle, Le Cung Bac, one of Vietnam's best-known directors. (Another of Bui's uncles, Don Duong, is an actor who plays the film's cyclo driver Hai.) Bac, who like all filmmakers in Vietnam has trouble financing his productions, plays a cameo role. More important, he serves as liaison between Bui and cultural authorities who are keeping close tabs on the production. "The heart of the story, even though it was written by a viet kieu [a Vietnamese living overseas], still has the essence of Vietnam," says Bac. Ngoc Hiep, a popular actress from Ho Chi Minh City who plays the lotus vendor Kien, says of Bui: "He is almost like a Vietnamese."

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