Inspired by visits to Vietnam, Cal-raised writer-director Tony Bui created 'Three Seasons'
Tony Bui is 100 percent Californian. The 26-year-old darling of the 1999 Sundance Film Festival has long, pony-tailed hair, a casual demeanor and laid-back, West Coast accent -- which might just as easily be peppered with "whoa, dudes" as insights on filmmaking. All of this is evidence of his Americanized upbringing by Vietnamese parents who fled their home land with 2-year-old Tony and his older brother in 1975.
Yet the young writer-director -- whose interest in filmmaking was sparked by thousands of free rentals from his father's video store as a teenager -- chose the hardships of life in the country of his birth as the topic of his first feature film, even though he'd never even visited Vietnam until a very few years ago.
"I wanted to bring to the screen what I saw there," Bui explained when we met in March to talk about his movie, "and to give voice to the people that I met and became friends with and care about."
"Yellow Lotus," his award-winning short from three years ago, garnered him an invitation to the hallowed workshops of the Sundance Filmmaker's Institute in 1997, where he put the finishing touches on a script for the magical but matter-of-fact allegory on modern Vietnam called "Three Seasons." In January, Bui and his picture -- which has just been released in major markets -- cleaned up at Sundance, taking home the Grand Jury prize for best picture, another nod for best cinematography, and the box office-friendly Audience Award.
Aided by the influence of two high-profile project cheerleaders -- cast members Harvey Keitel in the States and Don Duong (a respected Vietnamese actor who happens to be Bui's uncle) in Saigon -- Bui's film became the first American production allowed to shoot in his native country since the war, and the first American film made entirely in Vietnamese.
"Three Seasons" tells a trio of parallel stories about the rapidly changing face of this formerly closed society. One follows an impoverished cyclo driver, another a homeless boy and the third a lotus harvester — and each takes place in Saigon during a different season (dry, wet and growth).
The film is so rich with the flavor of this captivating but underdeveloped city, and so refreshingly devoid of war references and Western perspective, that when Bui was in San Francisco for the city's film festival premiere of "Three Seasons," I had to ask him how he gained his seemingly native perspective and how he got in touch with the difficult day-to-day existence of the Vietnamese lower caste when he had grown up so detached from his roots.
SPLICEDwire: When did you first start going back to Vietnam? Did you go back as a tourist? Did you go back to see family?
Tony Bui: I went back to see family. My mom sent me back. I was 19 and I'd never really even left this country, except to maybe go to Tiajuana or something. I was sent to Vietnam basically to visit my grandparents, who were ailing, and I hated it. I hated every moment of it. I remember arriving there, I remember the cabin doors opening and the humidity hitting me, and the dust, and all the noise, and the smells, and the crowds, and the rickshaws, everything around me. The city has changed so much since then, and now I'm glad I was there for what was a transitional period. But I remember the first four hours I was there I just wanted to go back home.
SPLICED: You wanted to get right back on the plane.
Bui: That's what I wanted to do, absolutely. And I was there for two weeks. Then, I remember, I found one restaurant, in District One, that actually had air conditioning, and I planned all my day's events around that restaurant. I literally went in there four or five times a day -- "Uh, I just want a Coke." (Laughs).
And after two weeks, I left, never thinking I would go back. I landed in San Francisco and in about a 45 minute drive to my parents house in San Jose, I just had this incredible feeling of depression that hit me. It was very odd because I wanted so badly to leave and (here) I had this incredible sense of longing and sadness. I was in tears. But I couldn't explain what I was crying about. I had to go back to figure it out. And I remember writing apology letters to all my relatives, because I'm sure I insulted them every day with "What do you mean you don't have a toilet?" and "Oh my god, it's so hot!" and "What's that smell?!?"
So the next term break I had, I went back and spent three and a half months there, and this time I really experienced it the way I should have the first time. I embraced all the things I had hated about it, and to this day I love the heat, I love all the smells, I love all the nuances. And now it's all those nuances that call me back.
SPLICED: And you were going back as a tourist at this point, not as a filmmaker?
Bui: As a total civilian, absolutely. I was a student, so all I had at one time was maybe a hundred bucks, you know. At that time, a hundred bucks could sort of last you a few months, but I never ate in the restaurants, I never stayed at the hotels, so my entire experience in Vietnam was on a very, very local level. That's how I got to know all the cyclo drivers, and got to know all the street kids, and got to know many of the people I wrote about and cared about. It didn't come from any desire to make a film about it. I didn't think it was even possible.
SPLICED: But at that point you were headed down the film career road, were you not?
Bui: Yes. I was just going into film school.
SPLICED: But it was two separate things?
Bui: Two separate things happening. They would meet very quickly, but it was two separate things. (So) I was seeing this Vietnam that I had never thought about or seen or heard about growing up -- because everything I'd heard was always about the past.
SPLICED: Was there a lot of discussion about Vietnam in your house?
Bui: There was, but even that was about the past. My dad was in the military, and obviously we escaped. So a lot of his stories were about the past, about the hardships, about the cruelty of the communists. But when I went there, I experienced a totally different world. I saw this incredible spirit, this incredible humanity that was very universal and had nothing to do with what I thought about Vietnam growing up. Soon I was then going back every year. Sometimes twice a year.
Then at the same time this was happening, I was immersed in film school. I began to identify with films that were personal for the filmmakers, films that had a consciousness, films that try to say something, films that meant something. And film school in 1995 was very much the Tarantino age, the slacker age. But while I was watching those films and having a good time, those weren't the films that were affecting me.
So these two things are happening separately (but) by 1994 the two came together, and I realized at that point the kind of filmmaker I wanted to be -- a filmmaker that could hopefully say something, hopefully reveal something. I wanted to make personal films, films that I could care about.