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
"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
"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
"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