Airlifted to safety with his father's family in the waning days of the South Vietnamese government, Tony Bui did not return to his homeland until he was 19, and his immediate reaction was to flee. "I'...
At last year's Sundance Film Festival, 26-year-old director Tony Bui scored a monster victory when his debut offering "Three Seasons," took three awards, including both the Grand Jury and Audience prizes for best picture. But despite being the toast of Park City, Utah, the film about post-war Vietnam opened quietly in May with a $47,000 debut weekend at the box office. It topped off its theatrical run in August with little more than $2 million in ticket sales.
Despite the assumption that Sundance success equals box-office success, the reality shows that more often than not, the films that win the festival's top awards have a tough time finding audiences in the real world. "I think it's just the nature of the types of films shown at Sundance," says Paul Dergarabedian of box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. "Generally, these films are not intended to be blockbusters and are more artistic in nature. The whole notion of the festival is quality of the work."
The Cinderella story of "The Blair Witch Project" filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez is often cited as the ultimate Sundance success. They were the guys with the $40,000 film that went on to gross more than $140 million. But what many fail to realize is that despite debuting at Sundance in 1999, "Blair Witch" didn't win a single prize there. It wasn't even a film in competition.
"'Blair Witch Project"'s are the Halley's comets of films," says Hollywood Reporter film writer Dana Harris. "They come every few years, and people don't realize how many indie films that do nothing come and go in between."
One of the films that fell through the commercial cracks was "Judy Berlin." The film won Eric Mendelsohn a directing award at the 1999 event. But while the film went on to work the festival scene, it never had a theatrical run in the United States.
"A lot of these films [that debut at Sundance] don't have distribution," Dergarabedian says. "And the reward of Sundance is that you might get a distribution deal, and your film gets seen. [But] a lot of movies go in and will not get distributed."
The argument that award winners at Sundance might not be representative of the general moviegoing community is a powerful one. Unfortunately, it fails to explain one of the strangest epilogues to the 1999 festival.
First-time filmmaker Gough Lewis made headlines last January with his documentary about a 22-year-old Singaporean honors-student-by-day/hard-core porn actress by night. To some, "Sex: The Annabel Chong Story," even more than "Blair Witch," was the talk of the festival. Its reach was strong and immediate: People were enthralled, outraged, disturbed and/or disgusted. But despite all the attention (and it received far, far more than either "Three Seasons" or "Judy Berlin"), the film has yet to see a domestic theatrical run. (It is finally slated to open in a limited release early next month).
In the case of "Sex," all the buzz may have actually hurt the film's chances -- as word eventually leaked that director Lewis had at one time been romantically linked to his subject. With his objectivity called into question, some believe Lewis destroyed any chance he had at making a legitimate, compelling feature.
"It didn't surprise me that ["Sex"] didn't get distribution," says Harris. "The film was a bit of a disappointment in that it was intellectually bankrupt and kind of broke the code of documentary filmmaking."
In the end, it really is the luck of the draw. Audiences are fickle, the fates are tricky, Hollywood's tough. Even some of Sundance's most-well-known alumni ("Clerks," "The Brothers McMullen" and "El Mariachi") couldn't summon the broad appeal to top $10 million at the domestic box office.
"At Sundance, you're lucky to get in at all," Dergarabedian says. "You're even luckier if you win and get a distribution deal. The formula you need at Sundance is not the same for a box-office hit.
"I don't think that's really the emphasis. The emphasis is on the quality and artistry of the work."
Airlifted out of Vietnam at the age of two; endured the refugee camp experience (three months in Fort Chafee, Arkansas) before relocating with his family to Northern California where they settled in the Silicon Valley community of Sunnyvale
Feature debut as writer-director "Three Seasons"; also produced; executive produced by and starring Harvey Keitel; first American feature to be filmed in Vietnam since the war; selected as Vietnam's entry for the 1999 Best Foreign-Language Film Academy Aw
Returned to Vietnam for the first time to visit his maternal grandparents
Co-produced brother Timothy's debut feature "Green Dragon"; screened at Sundance
Directed student short "Yellow Lotus", filmed in Vietnam and starring his uncle Don Duong, one of the country's most-esteemed actors; film was shown on the festival circuit (including at Sundance) and won several awards
Airlifted to safety with his father's family in the waning days of the South Vietnamese government, Tony Bui did not return to his homeland until he was 19, and his immediate reaction was to flee. "I'd never experienced heat like that in my life. And the humidity! There was no air conditioning." Yet, unbeknownst to him, he was embracing his birth country, and within an hour of landing in America, he wanted to go back. So began the filmmaker's love affair with Vietnam, which would see him return once or twice a year thereafter, for weeks or months at a time, to gain greater fluency in Vietnamese and try to understand why "all the things I hated--the heat, the dust, the noise, the motorcycles--became things I needed." His mother's family had stayed behind, and his uncle Don Duong, one of the country's best known actors, was in a highly advantageous position to help Bui hurdle the obstacles he would encounter filming in Vietnam. After shooting his thesis short "Yellow Lotus" (1995, starring Duong) there, he attended the 1996 Sundance Filmmakers and Screenwriters Lab, where he developed his "Three Seasons" (1999) screenplay, captivating Jason Kliot and Joana Vicente of the New York production company Open City Films. Undaunted by his insistence on shooting entirely in Vietnam, they came aboard and persuaded October Films to finance the project and Harvey Keitel to play the sole American role.
came from a family of Vietnamese artists; when the South fell, mother's side of family stayed behind; Bui's ability to shoot in Vietnam came about through an accidental meeting between his mother and the head of the Giai Phong Film Studio, one of Vietnam's two largest state-run film companies
born c. 1969; served as a producer on "Three Seasons" and also co-wrote the film's story
Bui's mother's brother, with whom he stayed on his first trip back to Vietnam at age 19; starred in "Three Seasons"
Loyola Marymount University
Bui and his brother Timothy have formed a production company, dubbed Rickshaw Filmworks. There is a proposed project in the works, written by the brothers, inspired by their experiences in the Fort Chafee, Arkansas refugee camp when they first arrived in the USA. If all goes as planned, Timothy will be making his directing debut at its helm.
"I spent several years in Vietnam, just living there. I just wandered the streets, got to know the people, and got to hear their stories. The cyclo drivers, the street kids, the prostitutes. I got to hear their bitterness, their fears, their concerns, as well as their hopes, desires and spirit toward life. The Vietnam I experienced was completely different than the one I had thought about growing up." --Tony Bui quoted in DAILY NEWS, April 18, 1999
"The Vietnamese, before each film, they have to pay respect to Buddha. One of the Vietnamese liaisons said, 'You can't shoot on this day because it's bad luck. You haven't prayed to Buddha.' But of course we Americans, we don't listen. So our first day of shooting, we were hit by a typhoon. It totally wiped us out. The Vietnamese brought fruit and set up an altar table and made every member of the crew bow in front of the set. It was still raining at this time. Right after we bowed, the skies cleared. The Vietnamese said, 'You see, you see, you should do it. You guys never listen to us. You think you're always right.'" --Bui to John Clark in LOS ANGELES TIMES, April 29, 1999
"The Vietnam that I saw is a country where more than half the population wasn't born yet when the war ended. I saw people filled with hopes and ambitions and frustrations. But their entire attitude is about moving forward and reaching out. I wanted to show this humanity, this side which no one knows." --Bui quoted in THE NEW YORK TIMES, May 10, 1999
"We looked different in school. There were no other Vietnamese kids around us. We tried to fit in, so we pushed our culture and our heritage away even further. That's what made it so powerful when I went back. I had repressed it so deeply that when I went back it was like opening the flood gates." --Bui to Chris Vognar in THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS, May 23, 1999