Watched Nguyên Võ Nghiêm-Minh’s Buffalo Boy the other night to see if I wanted to use it for my Understanding Vietnam course next term. I’ve added a one-a-week evening film viewing to the course this time around & I’m still setting on the final list of films I’ll be showing. I’ll definitely be showing this film. One gets a panoramic view of the landscape of the southern-most parts of Vietnam; set in Ca Mau, there isn’t a frame in the film that doesn’t include water. Beyond the portrayal of landscape — important for my students, most of whom have grown up in the northeast United States — the film dramatizes the lives of people who live on the very margins of the socio-economic margin in 1940s Vietnam.
Based on a story by Son Nam, the film looks at the lives of young men whose parents, landless peasants, barely eke out a living as share croppers on large tracts of rice land, using their buffaloes to cultivate the paddies. The buffalo is the most valuable thing that the peasants own & the death of an animal is a disastrous event — literally a matter of life & death — for a family. During the rainy season when the floods come even the poorest peasant must hire buffalo herders to take the animals to pasture. Kim, the hero of the story, is the son of such a poor family & he refuses to go to work as a laborer for a landowner, so he takes the family’s two buffaloes himself when the floods come, one of the animal dying of starvation during the journey. The death of the animal marks the beginning of the disintegration of Kim’s family & the rest of the film chronicles his life after he joins up with the Lap, the leader of the largest “gang” of herders.
The depiction of the life of these herders is remarkably like the wild west, with drinking, dope-smoking, fighting, murder, & rape. The one thing the herders have is a kind of freedom — they are not farm laborers working for someone else. The plot of the film works out Kim’s coming of age & his coming to a kind of understanding. Throughout everything, the buffalo stands as a symbol of mute persistence in the face of nearly impossible adversity. The critique of French colonial economics is subtle, but clearly present in the story. It is not an accident that a French patrol walks past without concern while Kim is burying the remains of the family’s buffalo. Throughout, the hardness of the peasant’s life is set against breathtaking beauty and the characters are presented sympathetically but without any hint of overwrought romanticism.
In looking around just now for commentary on the film, I discovered this post on the All In One Boat blog, which gives a fuller account of the story. The blog itself looks interesting as well, dealing with the environment, poetry, religion & all sorts of things I’m interested in — I’ll certainly look in again from time to time. And here is the NY Times review of Buffalo Boy.