If looks were everything, the Vietnam-shot indie “Three Seasons” would rate unqualified raves. With a succession of fit-for-framing compositions, it’s easily one of the most self-consciously pretty entries at Sundance. Unfortunately, there’s precious little to gnaw in the way of text and subtext once you’ve ogled the visuals. Pic’s historic place as the first American indie to be shot in Vietnam with native-speaking actors since the war will guarantee arthouse bookings; exotic temples and gardens and rare non-docu look at metropolitan Ho Chi Minh City (referred to throughout as Saigon) will mean strong ticket sales in heavily Asian markets.
An obvious labor of love for Vietnam-born, U.S.-reared helmer Tony Bui, here making his feature bow, pic reflects creator’s bicultural perspective. Long-held shots and languorous pacing are reminiscent of recent Chinese imports; giddy, nonjudgmental take on bustling postwar Saigon gives pic a tacit pro-U.S. slant (surprising, because Bui had to submit his script to Communist censors).
Upbeat and humanistic to the point of seeming naive, pic follows interlocking fortunes of five characters: a young flower girl name Kien An (Nguyen Ngoc Hiep), a street urchin named Woody (Nguyen Huu Duoc), a cyclo driver named Hai (Vietnamese superstar Don Duong), an ex-Marine named Hager (exec producer Harvey Keitel) and a self-deluding prostitute named Lan (Zoe Bui).
Kien takes a job tending and harvesting lotus blossoms at the mysterious Teacher Dao’s (Manh Cuong) seemingly abandoned temple. Dao, coping with advanced leprosy, eventually asks the curious Kien to become his hands and take down dictated poems.
Meanwhile, cyclo driver Hai helps Lan escape an unhappy client (in one of several implausibly executed action scenes) and then becomes her slavish admirer, neglecting business to shuttle her between tricks. Hai gathers the necessary cash to graduate from lovesick puppy to client by winning a conveniently provided cyclo race.
The street gamin, obviously inspired by kids in “Open City” and other neo-realistic classics, wanders the rain-soaked alleys searching for his stolen merchandise case. He thinks the American has taken it, but the American, played by Keitel in his stock world-weary fashion, has his own mission: He’s searching for the daughter he never knew.
Plot’s many contrivances and cliches can almost be forgiven because they’re served up with such wide-eyed wonder by Bui. Helmer was obviously on a real-life quest: to rediscover his homeland. This explains Lisa Rinzler’s subjective camera placements to suggest characters’ awed re-sponses to exquisite lotus gardens and downtown lights. This occasional operatic romanticism is furthered by Wing Lee’s strong production design and Richard Horowitz’s Eastern-flavored score.