Buffalo Boy

An oblique coming-of-ager set in French-occupied Vietnam, Buffalo Boy sports a stronger narrative spine than is usual in Vietnamese rural dramas and a less fragile tone in its deployment of landscape and character.

Largely set in a featureless waterworld punctuated by treetops and patches of dry land, this notable first film by onetime applied physics researcher Minh Nguyen-Vo has strong fest legs and specialized tube potential, with even some arthouse possibilities in Europe.

Based on a collection of short stories by a native of the region, pic is set in the southernmost part of Vietnam, where lowlands elide into the sea. For 6 months of the year, during the rainy season, the area is heavily flooded, forcing inhabitants to take their water buffaloes to higher ground for pasture.

In a first test of his adulthood, 15-year-old Kim (Le The Lu) gets permission from his aged father, Dinh (Nguyen Huu Thanh) to take the struggling family’s 2 precious animals upcountry on his own.

The perilous, realistically lensed journey, fraught with conflicts between rival herdsmen and the death of some animals, sees him falling in with Lap (Vo Hoang Nhan), the buccaneering head of a large herd.

Returning with only 1 buffalo and arguing with his parents, Kim leaves home and goes into business with Det (Kra Zan Sram), who he met on the trail. Det’s young son takes a liking to Kim, as does Det’s pretty partner, Ban (Nguyen Thi Kieu Trinh).

Film’s underlying theme of man versus nature returns in the bleakly poetic middle section, where Kim patches things up with Dinh just prior to the latter’s death. Stranded in a vast, almost abstract sea of nothingness, Kim performs his father’s watery burial with the help of an an old couple, Haitich (Truong Van Be) and his kindly wife, Ba Hai (Nguyen Anh Hoa).

However, just prior to dying, Dinh told Kim that his real mother is Lap’s sister, who Dinh raped when he was a buffalo boy. Further discoveries about his family background await Kim down the line.

Though the story is set around 1940, just prior to the Japanese driving the French out of Indochina, it could just as well be set in the rural present for all its fleeting references to colonialist rule. Kim’s rite of passage also plays second fiddle to the theme of people scouring a living from a merciless, watery landscape, lensed with a simple, unexoticized beauty by French d.p. Yves Cape.

Perfs are characterful and well-etched, especially by Vo as the brigandish Lap and by Truong and Nguyen Anh Hoa as the couple who help Kim. As the main protag, Le cuts a handsome figure, if rather remote and looking older than 15. Tech credits are thoroughly pro, though the many night scenes may not work so well on the small screen.

About the Director

Nguyen-Vo Nghiem-Minh grew up in a small town in Vietnam during the war. To escape the fighting and atrocities all around, he spent a great deal of time in his youth in the town’s one-room movie theater. He studied in France and the U.S., graduating with a Ph.D. in Applied Physics from UCLA. After years of doing research in optics, he decided to concentrate on filmmaking. Buffalo Boy, his first feature, was in Official Competition and won the special prize from the Youth Jury at the 2004 Locarno International Film Festival. – Globalfilm [09.08.04]