The government was tight on Tony Bui's film for good reason: they did not want the embarrassment of another Cyclo--the 1995 French-financed film by French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung (best known for The Scent of Green Papaya). In the most beautiful and vivid colors, Cyclo caught the vitality and madness of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), with its perverts, gangsters, drug dealers, and madams all thriving in the heat--certainly not the image the government wanted for their capital city.
When Tony Bui's film was completed, he screened it (with some anxiety) for Vietnamese officials. At the film's end, they stood and applauded; this was no Cyclo. But at the very moment the communist officials clapped, instead of a sense of relief Bui should have felt great concern; he should have feared that something had gone terribly wrong, that the $2 million he spent to make this "important" film had been wasted.
However, the clapping didn't cause Bui any concern, and the applause didn't even end in Vietnam. In Park City, Utah, crowds at the Sundance Film Festival also rose, clapped, and cheered. Astonishingly, the film festival awarded Three Seasons its Grand Jury Prize, as well as the Audience Award. How in the world could a film please both communist officials and Hollywood capitalists, you ask? By being a content-free sham.
I have nothing against films without content. But for an art film that claims to offer a look at the "new" Vietnam and its "still-evolving post-war society," it's unpardonable. Three Seasons has no action, no hunks, one prostitute with a heart of gold but no sex, and above all no plot (as it is a "cinematic tone poem"). If you promise us depth or some serious "spiritual mediation" on the grand themes of modern life--as a "tone poem" usually does--then the movie had better be deep, or else.
Three Seasons interweaves four thin short stories: a flower picker meeting her leprous master; a cyclo driver and deluded prostitute; an American ex-soldier (Harvey Keitel) looking for his long-lost daughter; and lastly, a meandering little boy who peddles cigarettes and lighters at local night clubs for his father. The reason why so many critics admire this film is simply because Bui's film doesn't depict the "new" Vietnam (as is supposed), but instead simply retells the oldest fantasy in the world--what the French call nostalgie de la boue ("nostalgia for the gutter").
Nostalgie de la boue describes a sentimental attachment and longing for a rural or impoverished way of life; a nostalgia for shit, for rats, for shacks, for life in the filthy streets. Indeed, this gloss on poverty is exactly what Cyclo mercifully lacked. For example, one reporter from the Asian edition of Time magazine interviewed the illiterate, unschooled 10-year-old street kid who played the street urchin in the movie. When asked what he did with his life, the boy said: "I just play all day." Ahh, the simplicity of the poor. No soul-crushing nine-to-five for them; they just spend the day playing soccer in the muddy streets.
In one interview, Tony Bui, who is a resident of California, explained that when he first returned to Vietnam at the age of 19 (he left when he was two), the poverty, the filth on the streets, the pollution in the air and water, everything appalled him. He immediately wanted to return home to America, where poverty was not so extreme and the roads were better paved. But once he was back home, he began to long for the poverty he was exposed to in Vietnam. This is not so strange; the whole industry of tourism thrives on this nostalgia for the gutter. Like the millions of tourists flying to places like Jamaica, South America, and Thailand, Bui wanted to return to the gutter--because in the popular imagination of the middle-class, the poor are connected with some truth which we, who are well off and distracted by our material wealth, can no longer see or appreciate. This is the fantasy at the core of the film.
Early in the move there is a scene which vividly demonstrates the gutter nostalgia permeating Bui's work, and conjures an illusion of depth. A group of cyclo drivers are reflecting on their extremely modest incomes, and one remarks that they do not earn enough money in one month to pay for just one night in the cheapest room at the fancy hotel where they wait for passengers. His fellow cyclo driver smiles and says that he wouldn't want to stay at a four- or even a five-star hotel, since he sleeps in a thousand-star place every night. You see, his shack has no roof, and he sleeps with the starry sky above him. If this is not nostalgie de la boue at its worst, what the hell is it?
It's this very simple system of nostalgia that helped Three Seasons find fans in both the communist and the capitalist worlds. For the communists, the film offers the idolization of the peasant (a popular theme in Socialist Realism fiction); for the capitalists, the film offers the chance to sentimentalize poverty, to see the poor in all their glory. They may be in the gutter, but they're always looking at the stars.