“Three Seasons” or “Ba Mùa” by Tony Bui a beautiful movie about unpleasant things

3seasons

For my birthday, my wife gave me a box with a book cover from Jules Verne’s’ “Around The World In Eighty Days”. Inside was a ticket to travel the world through the eyes of film directors from Vietnam, China, Sweden, Patagonia and Japan.

gift

It was the perfect gift. It took me out of myself and invited me to experience far away places through the eyes of the people who live there.

Today, I’m going to review the film that made the biggest impact on me, Tony Bui’s “Three Seasons”

When it was made in 1999, “Three Seasons” was the first American film made in Vietnam, in Vietnamese, after Clinton lifted the embargo. It made a big splash at Sundance that year, becoming the first film to receive both the Grand Jury Award and Audience Award.

Set mostly in Ho Chi Min City, in the early days of the Đổi mới (which roughly translate as the Renovation) it tells interlocking tales of people trying to find their way to a better future.

“Three Seasons” is visually seductive. The camera leads the eye to beauty in the midst of ruin and squalor and fills the mind with colour and light and hope. Yet the situations of the people at the centre of these stories contrast starkly with the visual mood of the film: a prostitute, selling herself to men in luxury hotels, who dreams of a single night’s sleep in air-conditioned bliss;  a very young street peddler who searches relentlessly for the case he sells his wares from, which has been stolen from him; a young woman working to harvest and sell flowers for a cult run by a master who has been badly damaged and an ex-GI returning to try and find the daughter he abandoned at the end of the war.

These are tales rooted in poverty, exploitation, and dishonour.

Why then are they displayed with such beauty?

I’ve seen the arguement made that “Three Seasons” uses its cinematography to romanticise poverty and struggle and turn it into an acceptable myth.

That’s not what I saw this movie do.

I believe the cinematography helped me see what the people themselves could see: that in the midst of struggle and deprivation, there is still beauty, there is still compassion and sometimes, there is even love. These tales are rooted in unpleasant things but the blossom they produce, like the flowers the young woman sells, represent the hope that; with luck and kindness, things can get better.

This was a movie that I drank in first with the eye. The images are still with me and so are the people.

I have never been to Vietnam and the Ho Chi Min City of this movie is long gone, yet I feel that something has been shared with me that is alien and familiar and fundamentally redemptive.

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