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September 13-19, 2006

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'Buffalo Boy'

Photograph by the Global Film Initiative
Horns of a dilemma: Le The Lu must track his wandering beasts in 'Buffalo Boy.'

Wild Drovers

The Vietnamese feature 'Buffalo Boy' searches for roots in a watery world

By Richard von Busack

THE GREAT potential of Vietnamese film just got wider with the local release of Buffalo Boy, a selection from the 2005 Global Lens festival. (By coincidence, the 2006 festival is unfolding at the Mexican Heritage Plaza through September.) Director Minh Nguyen-Vo is a native Vietnamese who earned a Ph.D. in applied physics at UCLA before turning back to his first love, filmmaking. The result is a clear, unmelodramatic and unaffected rural film about the making of a farmer called Kim (Le The Lu). We hear his voice as an old man when we meet him. He is spurred to reminiscences by a family skeleton, unearthed by the hooves of the water buffaloes plowing a row.

While Vietnam is as picturesque as any place on earth, there's nothing picturesque about the act of rice farming; one's back aches just watching the farmers at work, stooping over the heavy mud. And the narration at the beginning quickly straightens out anyone wanting to dream up fantasies of the simple wholesome life. In Ca Mau, where Kim lives, the one-room bamboo homestead becomes an island every monsoon season—a hut standing in the middle of a troubled sea. Kim tells us, "Everything the water touches rots, and when the water recedes everything smells like mold."

For a land in which roots are everything, Kim and his family are unsettled. They are tenant farmers during the French colonial days just before World War II, and their sole possession of any worth is a pair of water buffaloes. When the rainy season comes, there's no food for the beasts. For a sum, and not a small sum, nomadic drovers will take the animals up to the mountains to graze until the dry season begins.

The farmers have an uneasy relationship with the drovers who pass through annually. The herders have their own kind of honor. They are brawlers, drinkers and sometimes rapists, but they're not rustlers. If they can't bring back a beast alive, they'll carry back his skin and horns as proof they didn't steal him.

Herding the buffaloes to the mountains is hard work, involving swimming alongside the cattle and pulling them through and gathering grass by the handful from underwater, if no grazing can be found. The farmers and drovers alike hold the animals in reverence. Seeing this is a reminder to us of the wanton cruelty of the American war, when our soldiers sometimes shot the animals for amusement or target practice. When one of these buffaloes dies, the roughneck drovers have a religious ceremony to calm its soul: "Alive, you were might itself. Dead, you possess divine power. Seers and God protect us."

During an especially bad year, Kim's ailing father urges him to join the drovers and take his water buffaloes up to the mountain alone. Kim quickly learns their ways and discovers that rival gangs are trying to get to the grazing lands. Kim sees the aftermath of a night when his boss, Lap, took a local woman by force. And one night, after an evening of drinking, they are attacked in their sleep.

The episodes in the mountains are shortened by Nguyen-Vo, who doesn't present the mountain scenery the same way he does the water lands. There are other sharp, unexplained transitions to later moments in Kim's life. We don't witness the actual moment where Kim finds his dying father after the latter leaves the farm in search of money. It's an opportunity for elemental movie drama that Nguyen-Vo puzzlingly deletes.

Vo's script is based on short stories by Son Nam, collected under the title Scent of the Ca Mau Forest, and having a sequence of stories probably explains why there's so little connective tissue between the incidents. Le The Lu's limitations as an actor keep Buffalo Boy from four-star status. Kim goes through a kind of arc, from dutiful innocent to profane buffalo drover to infuriated lover to a nihilist pissing on a Buddhist shrine, before he finally accepts his ties to the land. But the changes don't show in his face.

Perhaps the most compelling episode tells the story of what happens to the dead in a land where there is no land, only water. The bodies are wrapped in matting and propped up on poles, to protect them from the hungry crows. In this sequence, one gentle old lady's sacrifice leaves her so poor she doesn't even have a grave.

It's a ruthless life, but a pious one, and it is a kind of story I'd never really heard before despite all my years at the movies. Buffalo Boy's theme is changelessness; men come, men go, women—who get the worst of it—leave, and the land stays behind. Despite the air of resignation, there's not the usual view of the harmony of the seasons in Nguyen-Vo's film. Buffalo Boy tells of debts that have to be paid one way or another. The waterscapes recall Pare Lorentz's classic documentary work about the Mississippi, in the lonely huts, in the warning sign of lanterns floating in the dark, in the lighted straw sampans gliding over the dark flood waters.

Movie Times Buffalo Boy (Unrated; 102 min.), directed and written by Minh Nguyen-Vo, based on stories by Son Nam, photographed by Yves Cape and starring The Lu Le, opens Sept. 15.

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