Jackie Bong Wright

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“Buffalo Boy” Film Receives 11 International Awards

By Jackie Bong-Wright

Buffalo Herding

Exiting Loehmann Plaza’s cavernous movie theatre in Falls Church, Virginia, Hoa seemed sad. “I was deeply touched by this beautiful film, and yet I couldn’t cry. Buffalo herding is a life-time job for some Vietnamese, but it was depicted in such a miserable, desolate way that it left my throat as heavy as stone.” Her husband, Thanh, exclaimed, “I was just captivated by the awe-inspiring scenery in that remote rural area. I was also struck by the strong rains and flooding that submerged humans, animals and houses alike. It was overwhelming.”
Manohla Dargis of The New York Times seemed to echo Hoa. “The filmmaker certainly knows the power of his chosen medium: one of the most striking shots is a boat prow going nowhere and surrounded by swirling water, a graphically strong image that also suggests the resiliency of the Vietnamese people.”
Kevin Crust, Times Staff Writer, on the other hand, appeared to agree with Thanh. “The shimmering aquatic panoramas that dominate the writer-director’s impressive feature debut are loaded with both visual power and symbolic meaning.” He continued, “The low-lying lands that annually flood during the country’s rainy season create a vast liquid backdrop for this handsomely shot film. Director Nguyen-Vo elegantly uses water as a metaphor for life and death, and captures some stunning images in the verdant, wet surroundings.”
Did Minh Nguyen-Vo, director of Buffalo Boy, want the spectators to feel besieged by paradoxical feelings of desolation and love, of misery and fertility, of life and death? The director blends history, culture and personal stories on a larger-than-life scale. This classic narrative shows a 15-year old boy, Kim, looking for pasture his two starving buffalos, searching at once for their survival and for his own identity and adulthood.
The period is that of the French colonization of the 1940s in Vietnam. Kim’s harsh journey — looking for dry land, enduring the flooding of the six-month monsoon season, and ending in a green meadow — is beset with contrasts: innocence and violence, deception and friendship, hatred and love. A learning process that goes from adolescent naiveté to rough manhood ensues for Kim. He comes of age in a male universe of brutality, fraud, and crime. He is initiated into gangs of woodcutters and crooks, and surrounded by alcohol, drugs, killing, lies and rape. The scenario resembles a western gold rush or a cattle drive through rough terrain and violent skirmishes.
Nguyen-Vo subtly avoids melodramatic scenes, but the film has an after-taste that forces viewers to linger and reflect slowly on what they have seen. Oftentimes, he portrays Kim as stranded in a vast sea of nothingness, driving his heavy animals under water, staring ahead, silent, often going nowhere. Another scene shows Kim standing over his dying father in a sampan floating in an immense ocean, with only the limitless horizon to bear witness. Later, Kim gives his father a traditional water burial with the help of an old couple, total strangers, who help him with his task even though they are poor themselves.

Stunning Visual Devices

In Buffalo Boy, cinematographic symbols such as buffalos and water convey
extreme opposites of despair and hope, life and death. Buffalos are sacred in Vietnam, as are cows in India. Buffalos help men plough the land, keeping them alive but at a subsistence level. Water keeps people and nature alive, but can also destroy them with hurricanes and floods. Nguyen-Vo artfully employs these symbols to tell a simple tale of rural Vietnam with a few characters, including two children, and more than 350 buffalos.
Giovana Fulvi at the Toronto Film Festival wrote, “Using water as a powerful metaphor and a stunning visual device, Buffalo Boy has the mercurial pace of youth inner turmoil, turning Kim’s fight for freedom into an oblique reference to the country’s historical background.
And Mattias Frey of the Boston Phoenix has this to say. “Water serves as this film’s metaphor for an epic time, a force that returns as always nourishing the land, but rotting everything, man and buffalos.”
Underwater landscapes and merciless water currents control this breathtaking 98- minute film. Andrew Hamlin of the Northwest Asian Weekly says, “Director of photography Belgian Yves Cape Cape captured, mostly from eye-level, flood currents beneath sampans, bright-grey rainwater pebbles in a pool, men and animals confronting flood currents, even the lush greens. Cape also uses white lights in the dark distance to indicate intruders approaching — perhaps friend, perhaps foe.”
The director worked closely with Cape and deliberately chose high-contrast images with “very simple lighting …camera mostly at eye angle, trying to avoid all the ‘cool’ camera angles.” The director explained that he had to shoot the film during the flood season and there were no computer graphics … so the seemingly endless, waterlogged images are indeed authentic.”
“We worked in the water,” he continued, “through lots of storms, big waves, and strong winds. It was challenging, with lots of equipment malfunctions and the risk of running a high-voltage cable over hundreds of meters of water.”

An Accomplished Director

In his youth, eight-year old Nguyen-Vo escaped the fighting and atrocities of the war-torn Vietnam of the 1960s by watching movies from around the world in a one-room cinema his parents ran in a small town. He later went to France and the U.S. to study applied physics, graduating with a Ph.D. at UCLA. He was fascinated by sound and light, and for many years did research into non-linear optics.
Cinema suddenly came back to him later in life. Before Buffalo Boy came out in 2004, he had made two short films – Crimson Wings and Places and Times. They were accepted by four international film festivals in Europe and were later shown on two Public Television channels in the U.S.
Speaking of Buffalo Boy to Nha Magazine, Nguyen-Vo said, “Flowing water besides serving as metaphor for life and death, which are opposite and inseparable, is also a symbol of the passing of time. There are two sorts of times in Buffalo Boy, the real time associated with death and decaying of humans, animals and plants that leave water so clouded, and the historical time with the passage of World War II, the French colonization and the disappearance of a way of life. By setting the film at a very specific point in time, the story has the potential of becoming timeless.”
Inspired by the short-story collection “Scent of the Ca Mau Forest” by Son Nam, Nguyen-Vo completed the screenplay in 1999. He confessed that he inadvertently defied “the ABCs of how not to make a tiny budget film – avoiding the use of animals, boats, children, or dates (period in the film.)
His script won numerous screenwriting competitions – one in the U.S. (Film Independent, Los Angeles) and the other in France (éQuinoxe, Paris, presided over by the legendary actress Anne Moreau). At the éQuinoxe workshop in France to which he was invited, Nguyen-Vo met some Belgian and French producers who agreed to produce the film.
It took three long years to get funding for the film, and it came from seven countries: France, Belgium, Canada, the United States, Australia, Germany and Vietnam. Nguyen-Vo’s Green Snapper Productions engaged the cooperation of some production companies – Novak Productions, 3 B Productions, and Giai Phong Film Studio (GPFS). Filming in Vietnam, he collaborated with GPFS, a local company, for set design, costumes, and, mostly, a film crew.
“I didn’t opt to do a war film that could easily become propaganda, but to present an alternative lifestyle. The relationship between buffalo and boy represents the relationship between humans and nature. We made a conscious decision to avoid postcard beauty, and fancy and exotic movie shots. Most of the important scenes happen at night, with very simple lighting. Darkness and simplicity free the audience from mundane sensations of the visual to go beyond the narrative.”
Addressing the Loehmann Plaza’s audience, Nguyen-Vo said he was proud that Buffalo Boy was the first co-produced film with an entirely Vietnamese cast and with Vietnamese in lead roles in everything from writing to directing to production design, art, make-up, costume, and music.
Buffalo Boy has won awards at film festivals around the world, including competitions in Palm Springs, Locarno (Switzerland), France, Brazil, Japan, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Nguyen-Vo was named best director at the Cape Town World Cinema Festival in South Africa and “best new director” at the Chicago International Film Festival.
The film has been released in the U.S. by Global Film Initiative, which is funding it to go to 16 cities. According to Nguyen-Vo, the most important test for the film in the U.S. so far was its showing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last year. The packed house was “very enthusiastic, from the comments to the questions.” Moreover, the New York Times reviewed the film in a piece that was insightful and thought-provoking. As for the Vietnamese community in the U.S., the audiences were equally impressed. The film is now available on DVD. It remains to be seen how the larger public will receive it.

DVD of Buffalo Boy can be found on www.tulucmall.com, or telephone (714) 531-5290 or (714) 893-3456.