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25 Years Later: “Three Seasons” Returns to the Sundance Film Festival 

PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 25: Jason Kliot, Tony Bui, John Nein, and Joana Vicente attend the 2024 Sundance Film Festival “Three Seasons” screening at the Egyptian Theatre on January 25, 2024, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Stephanie Ornelas 

When Sundance Institute senior programmer John Nein reached out to Three Seasons director Timothy Linh Bui and producer Jason Kliot to have their film screen at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival as part of the Festival’s 40th Edition Programming and Events, they faced a challenge finding the original negative.  

“For about four weeks, no one could find [it]. We were scared out of our minds,” says Bui. “But because we had this crazy deadline to get it done in time for Sundance, everything just fell into place. People worked really hard to get it done. It was really Jason who said, ‘No matter what, we’re going to get it done and put everything on the line.’ Thank you so much, Jason, for that.”  

Bui joined Kliot and producer Joana Vicente, CEO of Sundance Institute, on stage January 25 at The Egyptian Theatre at the 2024 Festival for the special screening of Three Seasons, which premiered at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, where it nabbed the Audience Award: Dramatic, Excellence in Cinematography Award: Dramatic, and the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic. And it once again won audiences over with its captivating imagery and moving storylines.  

“It means so much for us to be here,” marvels Kliot. “This is my favorite theater at Sundance. It’s hard to believe that 25 years ago, we were here with this film. John Nein, I cannot thank you enough. John called me, and he said, ‘Could you get this [film] ready?’ And I said, ‘If you invite us, it’ll be there. We would not be here without the help of so many people.” 

The beautiful, emotional film follows three different stories of residents in Ho Chi Minh City facing rapid Westernization and widespread poverty, including a retired Marine who’s on a search for his daughter, an inner-city cyclo driver who falls for a troubled call girl, and a young harvester who collects lotuses for an ill poet with whom she develops an expected friendship.

“When I set out to make this film, there were three main things I wanted to do,” Bui explains. “I wanted to make sure that everything you see here is on the soil of Vietnam. These actors are actually Vietnamese, and the entire dialogue is in Vietnamese. That’s the thing that’s always bothered me growing up. These other films, they were throwing in kind of like Asian gibberish saying, ‘Oh, that’s Vietnamese, it’s close enough,’ and it didn’t matter. Every line, every dialogue is actually in Vietnamese, and that’s really important for me.” 

Says Kliot, “It was a very political decision to make this movie. [It] was the first American peace film after decades of war films and destruction. And I wish that, today, the gesture wouldn’t be as meaningful, but sadly, I still think it is.” 

Cinematographer Lisa Rinzler wasn’t present to accept her award for Excellence in Cinematography 25 years ago, so Kliot made it a point to acknowledge her before the screening: “When you see the images on the screen, you’ll understand why we often say that Lisa didn’t just deserve this prize, she deserved a Nobel Prize just for making this movie in Vietnam under the conditions that we made it.” 

“It’s definitely an incredibly emotional experience standing up here 25 years later to play the film again. [Making a film] is really about creating this amazing family,” says Bui. “It’s pretty emotional because we’ve grown closer and closer over the years,” he says of Kliot and Vicente. “I’ve built such a really strong friendship with you guys, a really strong bond, and that means a lot to me.”  

During the emotional post-screening Q&A, Bui credits Sundance Institute for giving him the tools and the support he needed to bring his feature film to life. 

“[The Sundance Labs] completely changed my life. I remember the first day when Michelle Satter and the incredible staff at Sundance said to me, ‘In this space, we want you to fail.’ In other words, ‘We want you to go out there, take risks, get out of your comfort zone.’ It was this incredible feeling of a safe place where you can experiment, try things, and you can fail. The best thing I got out of it was, I felt confident being told that it was OK to make mistakes. And I knew by the end of it, that feeling I had at the Sundance Lab, I would never get again in the real world.”

PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 25: Joana Vicente, Jason Kliot, Tony Bui, and Lisa Rinzler at the “Three Seasons” screening at the Egyptian Theatre on January 25, 2024, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock)