Three Seasons was the indie success of '99 in the US, carrying off three prizes at Sundance. But, you have to ask, was this because it's a great movie, or due to its significance for a nation that's still reeling from the Vietnam War (and wanting to boost trade)?
Trumpeted as the first American movie shot in Vietnam since the conflict, Three Seasons is certainly politically significant. Vietnamese-born, Californian-bred Tony Bui is in an unique position for an American film-maker. Previous efforts to show the Vietnamese to Western audiences in roles other than manic Vietcong and ox-drivers in paddy-field ooze failed miserably. Even Ollie Stone floundered (badly) when trying to portray the war from the Vietnamese perspective in Heaven&Earth.
Bui's characters are, by comparison, credible Vietnamese. But they are also somewhat familiar types (Han is the tart who finds her heart). And GI Hager is laden with US guilt.
The main characters - Kien An, Hai, Lan, Woody and Hager - each represent aspects of modern Vietnam. So while Lan whores herself in Western-style hotels but is redeemed by the earnest Hai, Kien An carries tradition but grows to understand modernity, and Hager makes peace between the US and Vietnam.
Side-stepping any grimness, Vietnam is portrayed with, at best, a poetic realism and, at worst, an unconvincing sterility. Due, undoubt-edly, to an on-set government censor, even the Saigon shanties look like pleasant neighbourhoods. The poetry is, however, unbound in the magical setting of the lotus lake or a later avenue of red-blossomed trees. Apart from Bui doing his bit for international relations, it's this exquisite imagery which forms the strongest aspect of Three Seasons.
Three Seasons manages to be both a beautiful poem and a sanitised travelogue. But while the characters may veer into cliché, an American movie portraying the modern Vietnamese positively is commendable and significant.