Vietnam Visions

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TIM LARIMER Ho Chi Minh CityEditor'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.That's a strong endorsement in a country where the government, and the people, are often wary of compatriots who live abroad. Bui and those working on the film--a collaboration of Americans, viet kieu and Vietnamese--hope that the sentimental nature of Three Seasons will help calm tensions. Bui's older brother Timothy, a music video director in California, is helping communicate with Vietnamese crew members who speak no English. The effort at linking cultures has not been easy, however. A Vietnamese cameraman walked off the set during filming because he was tired of taking orders from an American supervisor and had to be coaxed back; other crew members complained to the producers about the long hours and low pay. Day by day, we are winning their trust, says Kliot.One of the actresses, Lola Ai Guimond, is an Amerasian whose Vietnamese mother met her father, a U.S. Army photographer, during the war. The U.S.-born Guimond plays Phuong, an Amerasian prostitute. If my father wasn't the person he is, I could have been her in a second, says Guimond of her character. After shooting a scene in which Phuong's American father, the war veteran, sees her for the first time in a restaurant where she works as a hostess, Guimond was emotionally shattered. It is very hard to be acting a part that I know is a real life for many women like me, she says.Guimond's role is the highlight of her career: the actor playing her father is none other than Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Keitel. His decision to join the cast lent the small film the prestige it needed to attract a financier and distributor, October Films (Secrets and Lies). Keitel, who took two weeks off from shooting Lulu on the Bridge, with Mira Sorvino, to play the part of the veteran, has a penchant for boosting inexperienced filmmakers by participating in their offbeat projects (Wayne Wang's Smoke, Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs). There's nothing heroic on my part, says Keitel. It's just something emotionally and spiritually I have to do.PAGE 1  |  
Originally, Keitel was smitten by the role of the monk, a gifted poet who cloisters himself in a pagoda on a lotus pond because he is physically disfigured. But Bui insisted that the part be played by a Vietnamese actor, a decision Keitel endorsed. This story that Tony wrote is an affair of the heart as opposed to an affair of politics, which we all know in Vietnam caused a great many deaths, says Keitel, who donated his $25,000 salary to a Ho Chi Minh City charity. A Marine himself in the late 1950s, Keitel at first supported the U.S. war in Vietnam but later turned into a vociferous opponent. He was originally slated to play the Martin Sheen role in Apocalypse Now but was replaced after a falling out with director Francis Ford Coppola. That piece of film trivia now seems prophetic, says Keitel. Earlier this month he was filming scenes in a dark, steamy bar in Ho Chi Minh City. The bar, one of the city's most popular, is decorated with helicopters on the ceiling and wartime graffiti on the walls. Its name: Apocalypse Now. The fates have been good to me, says Keitel.That this movie is being made at all is a remarkable story. Bui has only one film to his credit, a short called The Yellow Lotus, which he wrote, directed and produced for his senior thesis at Loyola Marymount University in 1994. Filmed in Vietnam, it was shown at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, a breeding ground for promising filmmakers. Zhang Yimou, the successful Chinese director (Raise the Red Lantern), was so impressed he had the short played before the debut of his Shanghai Triad at the Telluride Film Festival. Producer Kliot and his wife Joana Vicente, also a producer, pursued Bui and his Three Seasons script and eventually got Keitel interested.Filming has been a challenge. The story uses more than 70 locations--all in Vietnam--and relies on crew members who don't all speak the same language, and extras recruited from the streets. The part of a street child is played by 10-year-old Nguyen Huu Duoc, himself a child of the streets. Duoc, barely 1.27 m tall and weighing 25 kg, has never been to school. I just play all day, he says while waiting to shoot a 3 a.m. scene.The biggest hurdle, though, is the government. Suspicion permeates everything, says Kliot. Vietnam's Ministry of Culture and Information, as well as the Interior Ministry, must approve any filmmaking in the country. Earlier this year, the producers of a new James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies, were set to shoot scenes in Vietnam. But after the crew and equipment arrived, authorities pulled the plug, saying Vietnam didn't have the technical expertise to assist with making the film. A French-Vietnamese director, Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya), received permission to make his stylish and violent Cyclo in Vietnam, but he was roundly criticized after the film was released. That had consequences for Bui. Says he: The police sat me down and said they didn't want another Cyclo.The authorities are trying to control the film's content by placing censors on the set. Sitting with a script in one hand and a notepad in another, the censor watches a video monitor as scenes are filmed. At one point, Guimond's scene in the restaurant is stopped by the official because one of the male patrons is aggressively groping her. In another, two women are walking to a bathroom in a scene's background. The censor wants the women removed because he didn't think women should be walking together in a bar. In one street scene, a crowd of people rushes to get on a bus, but the censor objects, saying Vietnamese people wouldn't push and shove so aggressively.The character of the cloistered monk raised eyebrows as well. Censors told Bui they suspected a reference to Communist Party icon Ho Chi Minh, who lived for a while in a house on a lotus pond. What's difficult is their interpretation of the subtext of what I'm trying to do, says Bui. They read things into it that aren't there. I am not making an anti-Vietnam film, not at all. But sometimes, to show the good, you have to show the bad. Do I condone the censors? No. Can I live with them? Yes. At least I can make my film in Vietnam. Something that, until now, no other American filmmaker has been allowed to do.On the screen, Vietnam is where you find itHollywood has churned out dozens of films about Vietnam since the war ended, but none was actually shot there. Here's where some of the epics were filmed instead:

Robert DiNiro, Glen Close; Universal Pictures; director Michael Cimino; shot in Ohio, Washington, Pennsylvania and Thailand

Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen; Zoetrope Studios; director Francis Ford Coppola; shot in the Philippines

Sylvester Stallone; Carolco Pictures; director Ted Kotcheff; shot in British Columbia, Canada

Stallone; Tri Star; director George P. Cosmatos; shot near Acapulco, Mexico

Stallone; Carolco; director Peter MacDonald; shot in California

Chuck Norris; Cannon Group; director Joseph Zito; shot in the Philippines

Norris; Cannon; director Lance Hool; shot in the Leeward Islands and Mexico

Norris; Cannon; director Aaron Norris; shot in the Philippines

Forest Whitaker; Hemdale; director Oliver Stone; shot in the Philippines

Anthony Barrile; RKO Radio Pictures; director John Irvin; shot in the Philippines and Washington, D.C.

Matthew Modine; Warner Brothers; director Stanley Kubrick; shot in London and Dorset, England

Robin Williams; Touchstone Pictures; director Barry Levinson; shot in Thailand

Michael J. Fox; Columbia Pictures; director Brian DePalma; shot in San Francisco

Tom Cruise; Ixtlan Film Corp.; director Stone; shot in the Philippines, Mexico, New York and Texas

Haing S. Ngor; Warner Brothers; director Stone; shot in Thailand  |  2