Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Three Seasons (1999)

Can anyone know how many stalks are in a rice field?
How many bends are in a river?
How many layers are in a monsoon cloud?
Can anyone sweep the leaves of a forest
And tell the wind to shake the trees no more?
How many leaves must a silkworm eat
To make a dress of colours from the past….
–song by Vy Nhat Tao

If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one, so I never have to live without you.
–Winnie the Pooh

Here are the characters: a cyclo (bicycle rickshaw) driver, a prostitute, a street kid, a young girl from the country, a poet in the terminal stages of leprosy, and an American vet trying to make peace with the past. The setting is modern-day Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City.  Here is the film 26-year-old, first-time director Tony Bui didn’t make:  In a violent and tragic intersection of broken lives, the forces of globalization and the ghosts of the Vietnam War conspire to destroy everyone.  The cyclo driver, bitter over having to service decadent foreigners and corrupt Vietnamese cadres, tries in vain to save the life of the abused, drug-addicted streetwalker.  The street kid, a small fish in a sea of predators, swims hopelessly against a tide of exploitation and starvation and crime.  The young girl from the country tries to save the poet from suicidal depression, but is caught up and consumed in a vortex of despair.  Huge Coca-Cola billboards loom over the urban landscape.  In the film’s climactic moment, during a typhoon, the cyclo avenges the death of the prostitute by shooting the American in a cheap bar.  The street kid gets caught in the crossfire.  The young girl, debauched by the now-dead poet, closes the vicious circle by selling herself in the same cheap bar.  The blood is barely dry on the floor.

I’m glad Tony Bui didn’t make that film.  He made Three Seasons (1999) instead.  Anyone really interested in my hypothetical scenario might be happier checking out Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu’s critically-acclaimed Amores Perros.  It’s sort of like Three Seasons meets Pulp Fiction.  Scanning many of the lukewarm reviews of Three Seasons, it seems as if some critics were hoping for a lot more brutality and a lot less elegy.  Too bad.  Tony Bui, working with his brother Timothy (who co-wrote the screenplay), wasn’t interested in laying bare Vietnam’s tortured soul.  He knows it’s there, and there will be other, more harrowing Vietnam films to come.  This time around, however, the Bui brothers chose to focus on rediscovering the beauty of a land and a culture that their family had been forced to flee shortly before Saigon fell in 1975. Three Seasons is a love song to their native land. It works so well thanks to the grace and dignity of the lead actors, the superb cinematography of Lisa Rinzler, and the fine musical score by composer Richard Horowitz and Vietnamese songwriter Vy Nhat Tao.  Small wonder that the Vietnamese censors who followed them around everywhere (Three Seasons was the first American film to be made in Vietnam after Bill Clinton lifted the U.S. embargo on the country) found little to which they could object.

So what stories did the Buis tell?  The most symbolic is probably that connecting the street kid, Woody, and the ex-Marine played by Harvey Keitel (who, as he’s done so many times for other young directors, helped produce this film).  Keitel’s character is in Vietnam trying to find the daughter he’d abandoned during the American withdrawal.  Woody comes into the ironically named Apocalypse Now Bar to hawk his wares.  An old lighter with a Marine inscription catches Keitel’s eye.  He invites Woody to sit down at his table.  He offers him some of his beer.  Woody drinks, falls asleep on his chair, and wakes up to find the wooden sales case that is his entire livelihood gone.  So is Keitel.  Woody naturally blames the American, and goes on a stoic search to recover his case.  That Keitel’s character is actually innocent of the theft is beside the point.  His thoughtless, macho, male-bonding little “share-the-beer” ritual messes up this kid’s life.  It’s the Americans’ role in Vietnam in microcosm: so much of the damage incidental rather than deliberately evil.  Fortunately, Woody, like the Vietnamese people themselves, has an inner strength that’s tempered by adversity rather than crushed by it.

The most visually stunning portion of Three Seasons concerns the story of the young woman from the country (played by Ngoc Hiep Nguyen) who is employed by a reclusive poet (Teacher Dao, played Manh Cuong Tran) to pick and sell the lotus flowers which grow in the waters surrounding his temple hideaway.  Hearing her sing a song of the water market he loved as a young man, he calls her into his mausoleum-like home.   Showing the same strength of character as Woody, Nguyen’s character is a brief, pure light in Teacher Dao’s long night.  Lisa Rinzler does an amazing job of capturing the gloomy temple shadows and the surreal beauty of the women as they row their small boats among the lilies.

In the last of Three Season’s stories Hai (Don Duong), the cyclo driver, falls in love with Lan (Zoe Bui), who plies her trade among the rich clientele who stay in hotels with names like The Marquis and The Majestic.  Hai takes Lan back to her home (in a much poorer part of the city) after her assignations.  His love seems hopeless—the life of the wife of lowly rickshaw driver represents everything Lan’s trying to escape.  Hai is unfazed.  Don Duong is the Vietnamese answer to Cary Grant.  Underneath the charm (and boy there’s a lot of it) is a determination that just won’t quit.  If Hai loves Lan, it’s because she deserves to be loved, dammit.  Even if she doesn’t believe it.  Cynics might whine that this is just another hooker-with-a-heart-of gold story.  The Vietnamese censors probably thought the Hai-Lan story symbolized traditional Vietnamese culture triumphing over the threat of bourgeois capitalist corruption.  I just thought that Nguyen and Duong had a wonderful chemistry together, and I wished them well.  (There’s also a very sensual scene involving ice and a spoon, proving that in eroticism less is often more.)

Although the stories in Three Seasons do not really intersect with one another, the film doesn’t feel patched together.  There is a unity of tone throughout.  The cinematography and performances harmonize to create a mood that one might called elegiac–if that word’s implication of melancholy didn’t belie Three Seasons’ inherent optimism.  Even in a Vietnam where mega-corporations now exploit cheap labour to feed the trendy appetites of the West, there is a lot of room for optimism.  Perhaps Tony and Timothy Bui’s message is that the Vietnamese people, who survived the war, can triumph in the peace.  I liked the philosophy of Hai’s cyclo friend, who said that he didn’t much care about four- and five-star hotels when he saw a thousand stars from his bed every night.

Trinh Cong Son, the Vietnamese songwriter-poet whom Joan Baez called “the Bob Dylan of Vietnam,” and who died this month, spoke eloquently in his last years of the need to turn towards the future and lay some of the ghosts of the past to rest.  Son chose to remain in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.  It was a choice that cost him four years of “political re-education” in rice and manioc fields, and another half a decade of obscurity after that.  I think he saw the same Vietnam that Tony and Timothy Bui see:

“I had no reason to leave Vietnam. In the anti-war songs that I wrote earlier, I was dreaming of the day when Vietnam would enjoy peace.  Having self-respect, I had to keep my promises and do whatever I said before. When the things that I dreamt of came true, I should stay to enjoy them. I could not leave.”

The Buis would probably also appreciate his statement that “Two of the most Important things in life are Destiny and Love. Destiny is limited. Love is unlimited. Therefore we should find the way to   foster Love so it can save Destiny on the Cross of life”.


Looking Back & Second Thoughts

This one is good for the heart.  Three Seasons gently invites us into another world which, for its 113-minute running time, we get to share with a handful of people whose happiness matters to us.  Tony Bui, the director and screenwriter, invests every one of his characters with a dignity that may be bruised but is never betrayed.  Fate, he insists, can give us what we deserve.  And we deserve to love and be loved.  There’s nothing saccharine here, however.  No one’s going to deny that any of the four stories in the film could easily have taken a darker turn.  That they didn’t is a kindness on the storyteller’s part for which I am very, very grateful.  This is one time I can get teary-eyed without seeing broken bodies or broken minds.  If Leonard Cohen had made a film at about the time he was recording Various Positions, that movie might have looked a lot like Three Seasons.

The cinematographer for Three Seasons was Lisa Rinzler.  Ms. Rinzler shot her first short film in 1979 and is still active as I write this in 2021.  She has 85 credits on Imdb, many for documentaries and shorts, but also including notable feature films such as Pollack and Menace II Society.  She was one of 30 women included in Helena Lumme & Mika Manninen’s book Great Women of Film.  Check out Lisa Rinzler’s entry at the IEC {Internet Encyclopedia of Cinematographers).  I’ve tried to find an online interview, but so far without success.

Tony Bui directed only one other film after Three SeasonsThe Throwaways, released in 2015.  The Throwaways is a fairly generic cyber-thriller with a not-entirely-happy blend of comedy and violent action.  I have no idea why the Bui brothers’ careers in the movie industry have been so limited.  Why a 16-year gap between feature films?  I know that Tony Bui spent some time working as a writer for different studios, and was involved in work on commercials.  He was also sidelined by an illness, and underwent major brain surgery.  It seems that life hasn’t been as kind to him as he was to his characters in Three Seasons.  In 2019 he released a documentary, Lucy Comes Home, about Lucille Ball’s return to her hometown of Jamestown, New York, for the first time in 20 years.

Check out Aaron Mannino’s interview with Tony Bui on the occasion of a 20th anniversary release of Three Seasons at the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival:


Available on YouTube?

Yes, at

Movie Information

Genre: Drama | Romance
Director: Tony Bui
Actors: Duong Don, Ngoc Hiep Nguyen, Diep Bui, Diem Kieu, Huu Duoc Ngugen, Harvey Keitel
Year: 2001
Original Review: May 2001


The subversive joys of Joan Micklin Silver’s little-known New York City short films

Watch “The Fur Coat Club” and “The Case of the Elevator Duck,” classroom gems Silver made before hitting Hollywood

Marsha Gordon, Professor of Film Studies at North Carolina State University, introduces two lovely short children’s films that Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee would envy.  I’m not familiar with director Joan Micklin Silver’s films, but these New York-based educational shorts from the early 1970s won me over completely.  Masha Gordon provides a background to Silver’s work, and links to the two shorts and the New York Times obituary for Silver, who died in 2020.  According to Ms. Gordon, “Two wonderfully unconventional films Silver wrote and directed for LCA [Learning Corporation of America] in the early 1970s—”The Fur Coat Club” (1973) and “The Case of the Elevator Duck” (1974)— deserve a place alongside Silver’s later feature film work, offering viewers today a cheery, fantastical counterpoint to Fran Liebowitz’s decidedly more curmudgeonly recollections of the era currently streaming in Martin Scorsese’s Netflix docuseries.”  “The Fur Coat Club” tells its story entirely without dialogue.  That the LCA would have okayed this joyfully un-didactic gem is a feather in their cap. 

And speaking of feathers, “The Case of the Elevator Duck” transposes the spirit of Louis Fitzhugh’s “Harriet the Spy” into a young African American boy in a housing project.  Ms. Gordon writes: “As with the girls in “The Fur Coat Club,” Gilbert is resourceful, persistent, independent, and a creative problem-solver. His barrier to keeping the duck as a pet may have been specific to the rules of life governing his housing project, but his solution represents something universal: not getting discouraged by failure and finding inventive ways to problem solve. “Man,” he proudly says with a smile on his face after he solves the case, “I’m gonna go crazy with all of the ideas I’m getting.”


Christopher Nolan’s Version of Vinyl: Unrestoring ‘2001’

Writing for the New York Times, Sopan Deb describes director Christopher Nolan’s work on a restored 70-mm print of Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction masterpiece, prepared for the film’s 50th anniversary in 2018.  Nolan’s objective, as Deb describes it: “Mr. Nolan set out last fall to recreate the experience audiences had in 1968, allowing moviegoers today to see the epic exactly as Kubrick intended. His goal meant there would be no digital manipulation in the new version but the occasional visible scratch would be allowed to slip through. In a world of high-definition and 4K resolution, Mr. Nolan is, in effect, time-traveling to the days of analog. Think of it as listening to a classic record on vinyl, with pops and all.”  Stanley Kubrick’s daughter, Katharina, expressed her gratitude to Nolan for lavishing the same care on the restoration that her father would have if he’d had the chance.


A/V Geeks

I’ll let film collector Skip Elsheimer introduce his own unique website:

“The A/V Geeks have collected over 24,000 old 16mm educational films.. so you don’t have to!

These films come straight from school libraries that have been abandoned as obsolete and may have faded colors, bad splices, missing titles, scratches or dumb narration – just like you remember!

Enjoy these DVD compilations and look back to how we used to be – or at least, tried to be! 

For film and video producers, we have royalty-free stock footage clips that you can purchase and download.”

Thanks to Skip, no one needs to be deprived of the chance to see classroom classics such as “O is for Occult,” “When Computers were Young,” “Temptations of a Christian Teenager,” and “Show Us Your Cats!!!”


An Interview with A.O. Scott

The New York Times film guru discusses his recent book, Better Living Through Criticism

A chance to spend a little time with a writer who has always been on my Top 10 list of film critics.

Films Worth Talking About:

Fight Club, Magnolia, The Matrix, Star Wars – Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace, 10 Things I Hate About You, Eyes Wide Shut, Office Space, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Boys Don’t Cry, Election, The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense, The Virgin Suicides, The Best Man, The Iron Giant, American Pie, all About My Mother, Galaxy Quest, Cruel Intentions, Being John Malkovich, Notting Hill, The Talented Mr. Ripley, American Beauty, Three Kings, Bringing Out the Dead, Princess Mononoke, The War Zone, Topsy-Turvey, The Insider, The End of the Affair, The Boondock Saints, The Bone Collector, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, The Cider House Rules, Angela’s Ashes, Arlington Road, Sleepy Hollow, Titus, Stigmata, The Faculty, Stir of Echoes, [El mismo amor, la misma Lluvia], Fantasia 2000, October Sky, Double Jeopardy, Kikujiro, Bicentennial Man, Big Daddy, East is East, Music of the Heart, The General’s Daughter, Never Been Kissed, Peppermint Candy, The Haunting, Stuart Little, True Crime, The Other Sister, Butterfly, The Thirteenth Floor, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Ravenous, EdTV, Payback, Mystery Men, The Muse, idle Hands, Limbo, Audition, Ratcatcher, Beau Travail, Two Hands, Romance, Dick, Autumn Tale, Cookie’s Fortune, The Hurricane, Mansfield Park, Tarzan, Toy Story 2, Perfect Blue, After Life, The Straight Story, The Limey, A Moment of Innocence, Go, [Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels], Any Given Sunday, The Thomas Crowne Affair, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Bowfinger, [Girl, Interrupted], Pokémon: The First Movie, The Mummy, Superstar, Runaway Bride, Analyze This, The Wood, The Green Mile, Varsity Blues, Dogma, Summer of Sam,  She’s All That, Deep Blue Sea, Jawbreaker, Rosetta, eXistenZ, Blast from the Past, The Astronaut’s Wife, Message in a Bottle, Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo, The Ninth Gate, Entrapment, 8mm, The 13th Warrior, The World is Not Enough, Felicia’s Journey, Twin Falls Idaho, eXistenZ

The Bigger Picture

FilmsThe Scent of Green Papaya (1993), Cyclo (1995), [Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003)]

Music:  anything by Trinh Cong Son


The Word on the Street

There are not very many movies that can put the viewer into the trance that this one did. It left me wondering why more American films can’t be made like this, with subtlety and an eye for simplistic beauty and peace in nature. The many scenes at night in the rain-soaked city only provide a stark contrast to the scenes with lotus flowers and singing, thus making them more effective and fresh. Above this, the characters were intriguing. None had a life even remotely like mine, and this is probably likewise for 99% of Americans, who live in a fast-track, needlessly complicated, and mostly material world. Materialism exists in Three Seasons, but is seen as the enemy (the plastic lotus flowers) or (in the case of the prostitute) something to overcome. I left the theatre feeling somewhat wistful that there are not more films like this being produced today.   [Becky-42]


The director’s sense of timing- not rushed, letting each story unfold, carrying one on the precarious wave of the confused mix of the country’s old and the new, the thought provoking issues of the various different kinds of love portrayed..parental love,romantic love, poetic love, the love of beaty where it realy lies….all rare in film making today. Profoundly disturbing scenes of the street children. Nothing like this from a young American film makers that I’ve seen.   [suzanne-5]


Parallel story lines is not an easy feat to carry off, but this is one Art-House movie that does it well. The transfer between story lines is seamlessly done, and that is not often found when producers attempt to be obtuse with multiple main characters. A love for the Vietnamese culture is portrayed in its complexity, and the depth of spirit and courage is admirably represented by the actors, and even the environment. An extra dimension is also added with the touch of romanticism, that lifts this film to being something exceptional, and makes it a must have for a personal collection. If you are looking for a movie representative of transitions and hope, then you don’t want to miss this one.   [brenyleelee]


The highlight of the film has to be the cinematography. I probably would have sat through the entire screening that I saw even if it hadn’t been subtitled–I was transfixed. I left the theater with images that remain with me to this day. This is not a perfect film, but definitely one worth watching.   [bross3]