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BUI TONY: Three Seasons

THE IRONY OF THE LOTUSES
Vietnamese born American resident Tony Bui wanted to make a film that showed his country and his people with all the humanity thatís missing from most other films about Vietnam. With his award winning Three Seasons he has achieved that. He talks to NICK RODDICK.

Tony Bui is the first returning Vietnamese to make a film in the country in which he was born (but left at the age of two: the 26-year-old film-maker was raised in the Silicon Valley community of Sunnyvale). The film he made was a short called Yellow Lotus and it paved the way, four years later, for Three Seasons, Bui's feature debut - not to mention the first US-financed feature ever to be made in Vietnam.

"I left when I was two years old"

Shot over a year ago, Three Seasons finally burst onto the international movie scene at the start of 1999. It was the first film ever to win both the Grand Prix and the Audience Award at Sundance; and almost inevitably, it is the first Vietnamese movie ever to screen in the Competition at the Berlin Film festival in late February.

For Bui, whose accent is unmistakably Sunnyvale but whose sensibility has undergone a seismic shift over the past seven years, both films - but especially Three Seasons - are a product of his unforgettable first visit 'home' in 1992.

"For the past six years," he said in Los Angeles last summer, as he worked on the final mix of the film, "Iíve been kind of dividing my time between Vietnam and here. I left when I was two years old and I knew nothing about the country, so I was sent back by my parents to understand more about the culture and the country and to regain my heritage.

"I ended up falling in love with the place"

"I ended up falling in love with the place and relearnt the language and spent the next six years there. And what I witnessed was a country that was not represented in American cinema or in western cinema as a whole. I saw a humanity thatís not in any of the films.

"You know, Vietnam films have all been about war or politics: people are always running round in the jungle holding guns. But what I witnessed there was something completely different. And I think the thing I want to do most is to present a film entirely shot in Vietnam in which the actors are Vietnamese speaking in the Vietnamese language. I mean, all the films about Vietnam are shot in Thailand, the Philippines, or Paris and, in a lot of them, people arenít even speaking real Vietnamese.

"So I wanted all that to be very authentic: I wanted to present these sort of struggles and the hopes and dreams of the people right now so that, slowly, as you watch it, you realise itís just like every other country. Hopefully someone in Kansas or Germany can relate to it as well as someone in Vietnam."

First, though, Bui - who had grown up in Sunnyvale thinking of himself as Vietnamese, had to find out what it meant to actually be Vietnamese, not a 'Viet Kieu' - a member of the millions-strong Vietnamese diaspora that has spread around the world since the wars began in the fifties.

"dynamics of the Viet Kieu and Vietnam is quite interesting"

"Yeah," says Bui. "The whole dynamics of the Viet Kieu and Vietnam is quite interesting. Thereís something like 500,000 Viet Kieus that go through Vietnam every year. A lot come back, and the nationals like the Viet Kieus, because they come with their money. But they donít come with the right attitude. They come thinking somehow theyíre better than the Vietnamese in Vietnam. I touch upon that a little bit in Three Seasons."

Chiefly though, the film - held together by the character of James Hager, a US vet played by Harvey Keitel who is looking for the daughter he fathered during the war - tells of three experiences of getting by in modern-day Vietnam: that of a 'cyclo' (cycle-rickshaw) driver who ferries around tourists and falls in love with a highly paid call girl; that of a woman who sells traditional white lotus blossoms, and whose livelihood is threatened by imported plastic flowers which never wilt and even have the scent of the real thing; and that of a street kid who was called Mickey Mouse in the script but who ends up in the film as Woody (Woodpecker Ė for his T shirt) because Disney got snotty about Bui using one of their character names and Universal didn't.

The film was shot entirely in Vietnam, using a mixed US-Vietnamese crew, with the local censor signing off on every single shot. Shooting in Vietnam wasn't easy, concedes Bui: there is very little equipment, very little infrastructure. But there were a few consolations.

"Itís funny," he says, "but sometimes I say itís almost easier to shoot in Vietnam because the trade-off is that they donít shoot films all the time, so when a film does come in, you get a lot of support in ways that you wouldnít get in New York. You can get permits for anything you want so long as you know how to get through the bureaucracy and the red tape."

"we had to grow... 10,000 lotus bushes"

What they couldn't find, though, is the lotus-covered lake which is the setting for the middle story. "We did a major search for this location for over a year all over Southern Vietnam. But all we found was the lake! Then we had to grow, like, 10,000 lotus bushes in it. So we spent three months before we shot the scene - which only took a week to shoot - growing the lotuses. But we couldnít grow white lotuses because they wouldnít grow in that mud, so we had to grow red ones and then, for weeks before, pick out all the red flowers and replace them with white plastic blossoms. The irony is, the filmís about the contrast between purity of the real flowers and the fake plastic ones. But, to get the idea across, we actually had to shoot fake plastic flowers!"

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NEXT WEEK:
Harvey Keitel explains why he is so passionate about Three Seasons.

See May 20, 1999 edition.

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