Film Notes: The Buffalo Boy (2004) by Minh Nguyen-Vo

The filmmaking effort stands out in this Vietnamese film that is memorable more for the daily struggles in the society of the 1940s Vietnam than a cohesive dramatic structure.

2.5 out of 4 stars

God and Buddha will help us

It is the 1940s Vietnam, during the French occupation. In the villages of the southern coast, people and their buffalos starve as rain destroys crops and fields every year. Some men take the business of looking after the buffalos of the people. But Kim’s family is too poor. His father cannot provide the money. Lad, the leader of the buffalo herder group, refuses to take their two buffalos. However, the group needs the services of a young man like Kim. So Lad accepts Kim’s buffalos after showing some resistance. Thus begins Kim’s journey of wild experiences and increased responsibilities.

The group often faces dangerous enemies in the form of rival gangs. But the filmmaker never treats the content as an adventure. Instead, the film grounds itself into the reality of these people. Very soon, it rapidly cuts forward where Kim returns to his house a changed man. The abrupt cutting takes away the cohesiveness of the plot. But the move might be understandable because the main focus is the development of the young boy Kim into a man through various experiences of life.

In such a scenario, however, it is surprising that the structure of the film keeps winding back to shape up as a constructive plot. There are sharp linkages between Lad and Kim’s father. This relationship again opens up a dirty secret within Kim’s family. Also, there are Kim’s own personal problems. His sexual arousal leads him towards a completely different and rather immoral direction. Overall, I was confused about whether the film strived towards a coherent plot or was it portraying the coming of age of a young man through various encounters of life.

The society of the 1940s Vietnam

This does not lessen the film’s merits by any means. It is amazing how the filmmakers shot the film surrounded by so much water. Also, we get a clear understanding of the social dynamics of 1940s Vietnam. The script uses the traditional conflict between the Viets and the Khmers to develop a part of its material. In comparison, the French influence is only peripheral. The beginning dialogues inform us that the French colonized Vietnam. They give hints of the French-Japanese conflict regarding Vietnam. That is the extent to which the film articulates upon that part of Vietnam’s history. But still, this is a film that is rooted in its world.

Incidents that underline the roots of this world float back later on in one’s mind distinctly but separately. Weeks later, the viewer will remember not the story or the drama, but the people and their daily struggles. Especially memorable are the older couple, living on a (literally) floating house. It is the struggles of these separate peripheral characters that make the film memorable rather than a central character arc that is unfocused with motivations that are sometimes questionable. As Kim, The Lu Le has his task cut out because of the character’s drifting moralities. Kim’s struggle is palpable in most of the time, but his gray shades render the character alienated and detached. He is caught between personal responsibility and a violent backdrop of history, just in the same way the film is caught between multiple threads that are still all too real to be ignored.

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