Viewed from a purely pictorial perspective, Tony Bui's first feature, a rhapsodic, melancholy love letter to (and elegy for) his native Vietnam, is one of the most dreamy and exquisitely beautiful films you'll see over the next 12 months.
Set in contemporary Saigon, the narrative weaves together a quintet of lives: Kien An (Nguyen Ngoc Hiep), a young girl working as a lotus picker on a dynastic estate; Hai (Don Duong), a cyclo driver who falls for the lovely, aloof prostitute Lan (Zo' Bui); Woody (Nguyen Huu Duoc), a street urchin desperately trying to recover a lost suitcase of trinkets; and Hager (Keitel, unusually out of sorts in an underdeveloped role), a grizzled ex-marine searching for the daughter he fathered during the conflict, and hoping to make his peace with the country.
Bui's film, with its underlying themes of forgiveness, redemption and regeneration, is offering a similar olive branch, but in providing a counterpoint to the celluloid mythology of Vietnam as nation of barbarians playing Russian roulette with innocent GIs, the director has swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. Consequently the piece is let down by overly symbolic exposition, infuriating mawkishness and glibly romanticised characters (Woody is sentimentalised to within an inch of Disney, and how many Saigon whores, you ask yourself, get to ride down vistas showered in blossoms?), suggesting that Bui's wistfully idealised vision is sorely in need of a reality check.
This may sound like stern criticism to heap on such a burgeoning talent, or a work that boasts so many lovingly composed images, but if you want to see a Vietnam that isn't tainted by xenophobia or coloured by Bui's rose-tinted camera lens, the gritty lyricism of Tran Anh Hung's underrated Cyclo is still the best starting point.