Three Seasons

With Ngoc Hiep Nguyen, Don Doung, Zoe Bui, Huu Douc Hguyen, and Harvey Keitel to appeal to U.S. audiences.

My Rating:

A deeply felt, delightful tapestry of stories from Vietnam.

Add 1/4 to 1/2 star depending on your appreciation of Negativland and your desire to be a Negativland completist.

Bitable Bytes:
"Extraordinarily tender!"
"The visceral beauty crosses cultural lines and moves the viewer."
"Gentle and persistent!"

What to do while watching:
Read the subtitles and keep your hand on the remote: some of those puppies really zoom past.

What to eat while watching:
Pho. Alternately, Kim chee (more of a Korean dish.)

Three Seasons is a poetic title for this film, which actually portrays four stories that all seem to take place within one hot monsoon summer in Viet Nam. Visually vibrant, culturally rich, and emotionally packed, Three Seasons should leave you thinking, "That was a good movie!"

I am a strong proponent of foreign films. As a citizen of the U.S. writing mainly for a U.S. audience, I enthusiastically experience other cultures through film. Watching foreign films gives stay-at-home citizens an opportunity to look at other ways of living. Seeing Hollywood movies set in foreign countries isn't the same: often times the visions are ethnocentric, told with a U.S. eye that's not necessarily open or sympathetic to the culture it sees.

I admit a deep-seated apprehension of traveling abroad, to places where I don't speak the language and don't know the customs. This confession punctures my façade of worldliness, but what worldliness I do retain comes in a large part from watching foreign films. And on occasion, the allure of these images overcomes my apprehension and I go abroad.

I want to make this point as strongly as I can for two reasons: First, this is a good movie, and I recommend watching it. Second, the subtitles are hard to read. I know so many people who get frustrated with foreign films because they feel like they are reading and not watching, and missing subtitles makes them think they're missing the story. Well, the person responsible for the titles in this movie isn't particularly sensitive around these issues, and I want you to be ready for that. It behooves you to focus on the visuals. The stories are a little confusing whether or not you read all the subtitles, so don't worry about it. And if you can't get over it, just keep the remote handy.

The main romantic story line (that made Mrs. Worsted cry) revolves around Hai, a bicycle rickshaw driver who falls in love with Lan, a beautiful but mercenary prostitute. Lan's dream is to parlay the money and connections her work brings into an escape from the poverty of Viet Nam. It would be hard to describe Hai's wooing of Lan with sufficient delicacy. It is extraordinarily tender and free from expectation. Though his kindness, Hai wins Lan's heart against incredible odds. Their penultimate scene revolves around what the Mrs. and I assume is a purification ritual. Please let me know if you, my friends and readers, have further insight into this thing with the spoon.

In another story, a lovely young woman goes to work picking and selling lotus blossoms for a mysterious teacher called Dao. She sings an old song her mother taught her, and is called into see Dao, whose old memories are stirred by her song. Through her persistent gentleness she manages to form a relationship with the reclusive teacher whose soul is filled with poetry though his body is wracked with disease. She becomes his scribe and later enacts his final wishes. Again we see the theme of persistent tenderness. As much as anything else, this seems to characterize the strength of the Vietnamese people in this movie.

A third story revolves around Woody, a very young boy who sells miscellany out of a case to tourists. In an early scene Harvey Keitel (we'll get to him in a minute) gets Woody drunk on beer, causing Woody to lose his case. Woody's enraged father banishes the boy from the house until he recovers the case, and so the tired, wet child walks through the streets, looking for his lost wares. An even younger girl befriends him in his wandering, and we see from their perspective the extent of poverty's challenges, and how they manage to survive developing street-wisdom, resourcefulness, and pilfering skills. The most vivid illustration of how these children lose their childhood to poverty comes near the end when Woody has taken a moment to play soccer with friends, and how the game suddenly ends for him.

In story number four, Keitel plays an American ex-serviceman who fought in the war and fathered a daughter at that time. He has returned to find his daughter, but has very little resource for doing so. The Mrs. and I disagreed on whether or not he succeeds in the end, so if you have an opinion, do let me know.

The magic of this film is that it evokes strong emotions without making itself concrete. Unlike Hollywood tearjerkers, no puppy had to die. In fact, I'm not totally clear on what happened in Keitel's story line, let alone in the infamous spoon scene; nevertheless the visceral beauty in this film crosses cultural lines and moves the viewer. There is a rooted-ness about this movie that makes me feel its verisimilitude. It's completely true to life, capturing the essence and exultation of living, merely by showing the small, every-day actions of people. Viewers of this movie don't have to be told what to feel and aren't lead through the emotions as though by a brusque dance partner. Again, it's gentle and persistent, and a very good movie.

For the most part, I liked the subtlety of these plots, not knowing exactly what was happening, but knowing enough. However, in the case of the ex-Marine-looking-for-his-daughter plot line, a little more clarity was in order. Also let me register just an iota of annoyance with the non-user-friendliness of the subtitles.

Want to share a happy story with Gooden?

Gooden loves to share!

For your collection, Three Seasons.

Suggested Reading:
Zagatsurvey 2001 San Francisco Bay Area Restaurants

Gooden's listening to:
De La Soul: 3 Feet High and Rising (Out of print.)

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