"Buffalo Boy" has the distinction of being both an art film and one of the few originating from contemporary Vietnam. Based on short stories by Son Nam, it is a coming-of-age tale about Kim, an impoverished buffalo herder. It was Vietnam's official entry for Best Foreign Language Film category at this year's Academy Awards.
It is set in the 1940s and was filmed in the southernmost tip of Vietnam, where flooding was a fact of life. At the start of the film, we see Kim (The Lu Le, a nonprofessional like everybody else in the cast) and his parents looking over their flooded farmland. This land and their two water buffalo are their sole means of producing the necessities of life. Although water is a bringer of life, it can also mean death for such peoples. The water-logged land cannot produce crops, nor can it produce grass for the water buffalo that are near starvation.
Kim then decides to join up with a group of buffalo herders, who are in search of dry land and grass. Their trek pits them against both hostile nature and men. They have to compete with other herders for a meager plot of grass and against each other within the group. Their leader Kap is a rapist and a bully, who has earned the right to lead them not by wisdom but by a kind of Hobbesian cruelty.
The only real solidarity among the buffalo herders takes place at the bottom. Kim befriends a Khmer youth reunited with a Vietnamese wife and young child that he had been forced to abandon. The warm bonds that form between the two men and the woman and child are an exception to the general pattern of cruelty and selfishness that would appear to characterize Vietnamese peasant life in this film. Kim also develops a close relationship with an elderly peasant husband and wife who become surrogate parents. Their deaths, like those of his own father, serve as desolate reminders of how unforgiving society and nature can be in this remote and desperately poor marginal area of Vietnam in the 1940s, itself a marginal country.
There is little sense in the film of why people have so little hope. In one brief scene, the buffalo herders are extorted by Vietnamese cops who are serving in the French colonial administration. In another scene, Kim and his Khmer friend are considering going north to escape the floods that make their lives miserable. They reject the idea because all the land to the north is owned by landlords who would make slaves of them. They prefer freedom even if it means being subject to the whims of nature.
While watching the film, I was reminded of B. Traven's "Jungle Novels" that chronicle the harsh lives of ox herders and other debt peons in pre-revolutionary Mexico. The ox herders are among the most oppressed figures in Mexican society, who only slightly more elevated than the beasts of burden they tend to. In "Trozas," Traven describes the lives of "monteros", the lumberjacks who were completely reliant on the animals:
"The oxen hauled, and the troza began to move. An important job for the boyero, as Andres told Vicente, was to make sure the chain always lay under the troza where it was attached with the hooks. If the troza turned so that the chain came up to the top, the troza must be turned again with the next haul so that the chain was underneath again. For it was only when the chain was below the chuzo that the chuzo, the point, rose, otherwise it bored into the ground. The boyero couldn't simply stroll along beside it as he could with a carreta. The troza had to be lifted every time with the iron hook that Andres carried in his hand. The point got caught in tree roots, which stretched all over the trail"
Unlike B. Traven, however, the director/screenwriter of "Buffalo Boy" avoids any reference to the larger economic and political context of the life of a herder, except for those alluded to above. He is far more interested in the visual and dramatic aspects of the story rather than anything else. Indeed, the most powerful elements of the film are visual as we see the characters set against a gorgeous but waterlogged landscape. Although the film costs under a million dollars to make, it has the impressive production values associated with much more expensive films.
Director Minh Nguyen-Vo grew up in Los Angeles. After earning a doctorate in Physics at UCLA, he switched careers and started making films. From interviews given at the time of the film's release, it is obvious that he is an anti-Communist. He told www.kamera.co.uk that "In the forties, young men felt suppressed by the external force of Communism. They were also not strong enough to resist the French force of colonization. They had no way of showing masculinity, resulting in rival gangs, clashing between herdsmen, and fighting with women."
Despite his rather limited political understanding, Minh Nguyen-Vo is clearly sympathetic to his characters and has an artist's flair for Vietnam's beauty. This in itself should be sufficient to recommend this film now available in DVD.