Return To Vietnam

The first American movie to be shot in Vietnam since the war, "Three Seasons" arrives garlanded with prizes from the Sundance Film Festival. The writer-director, 26-year-old Tony Bui, walked off with both the jury's Grand Prize and the Audience Award for his subtitled film. In addition, Lisa Rinzler was honored for her cinematography. This last accolade is the easiest to understand: whether she's filming in the humid, bustling streets of Saigon or among lotus-strewn country landscapes, Rinzler's burnished images give off a lovely glow. The heat, the beauty and the poverty of contemporary Vietnam are made tangible.

Bui, who was raised in California (he left Vietnam when he was 2), interweaves three tales intended to reflect a society in painful transition, torn between Eastern and Western traditions. One tells of a poor cyclo driver's (Don Duong) dogged love for an ambitious Saigon prostitute (Zoe Bui). One involves a lovely young lotus picker (Nguyen Ngoc Hiep) whose singing awakens the poetic urge in a reclusive poet (Manh Cuong), who has hidden from the world since losing his looks to leprosy. In the third, we meet a young boy (Nguyen Huu Duoc) who sells trinkets on the street and an American veteran (Harvey Keitel) searching for the half-Vietnamese daughter he has never known.

There's a thin line between the archetypal and the stereotypical. The film's fans clearly think the movie falls into the former category. To my eyes, the novelty and exoticism of the setting couldn't disguise the hackneyed situations and sentimentalized characters. Bui's talent is evident. He has a keen visual sense and a knack for storytelling. But he's brought nothing but received ideas to Vietnam. While questioning the dubious "progress" represented by plastic lotus flowers, luxury hotels and Coca-Cola, Bui lays on his own set of oppressive Western cliches. If the movie were in English, would anyone buy this romantic, leprosy-ridden tragic poet, and one more beautiful whore with a heart of gold?

Three Seasons-October Films. Opens April 30.