Buffalo Boy was filmed almost entirely among the flooded lowlands of South Vietnam. Huts tower on stilts over gray-green currents, and herders pull their livestock through this liquid landscape in search of edible pasture. Indeed, there’s so much water onscreen that viewers must resist the urge to don lifejackets.
Director Minh Nguyen-Vo made prudent use of a modest budget (under a million dollars) and limited technical resources to capture his tale of teenaged Kim (Le The Lu), who comes of age during the 1940s. Kim’s adolescent trial by fire involves the eventful transport of his father’s valued water buffalo to higher ground. "We had to shoot the film during the flooding season and there were no computer graphics," he explains of the authentic, waterlogged images of seemingly endless water that saturate Buffalo Boy.
Buffalo Boy also violated what director Minh calls "The ABCDs of how not to make a film – meaning never use Animals, Boats, Children, or Dates (referring to historical period pieces). We worked in the water, through lots of storms, big waves, and strong winds. We had 300 buffalo and two children on the set. It was kind of challenging sometimes. Lots of equipment malfunctions. We had to deal with questions of security, too, running a high-voltage cable over 100 meters of water to the set."
Like the floating house that capsizes and is swept down the current during the final reel of Minh’s film, Buffalo Boy is drifting from city to city as part of the Global Lens Film Series. A ten movie package conceived by New York’s non-profit Global Film Initiative, the event’s goal is to promote heightened multi-cultural awareness through cinema.
With its authentic plunge into the six-month-long floods that cover Vietnam’s southern crust, Buffalo Boy seems the work of a storyteller intimately familiar with these harsh wetlands. Surprisingly, Vietnam-bred director Minh was raised far north of his film’s damp settings. "I would hear about the area and its flooding season, but I never lived there," he clarifies. "In high school, I read a collection of short stories by a Vietnamese writer. Two of the stories stayed with me, later inspiring me to write a screenplay.
"I was struck by the special visual climate of the area, where water covers the land for many months. Survival becomes very, very difficult, and families have to send buffalo elsewhere to find grass. There’s something magic about seeing water cover the lands, which later become green rice fields."
Such soothing aesthetics helped to counteract the tensions of war that surrounded Minh during his childhood. "During the Vietnam war," he recalls, "I grew up in a small town where my family ran a theatre. I could sneak in and see movies. There was a lot of fighting around town between the Americans and the Communists. Movies were my escape from the atrocities of war, and a window to the rest of the world."
Shaped by Japanese Samurai epics, American Westerns, and Indian dramas, Minh’s filmmaking youth was marked by a unique hurdle. Unfamiliar with the wave of foreign languages that accompanied these exotic onscreen delights, he would often have no way to translate their dialogue and titles. "One of the films that left a mark was Kurosawa’s Rashomon. It wasn’t until much later, however, that I knew what its title was. I also didn’t understand the depth of the drama behind these films, but I was fascinated by their images."
Meanwhile, Minh explains that his home country was also establishing its own film culture. "The Vietnamese government subsidized several film production companies in Cambodia and Ho Chi Minh City, which became active during the war against the French. They would make propaganda. After the war, these studios started making fiction films. Once in a while, a pretty high quality artistic film was made. These resources helped us for Buffalo Boy. We were able to find people that already had production expertise in set design, costumes, and other areas. We used mostly local crew people, bringing in only three from outside the country."
Minh migrated to America to pursue research development and teaching, graduating from UCLA with a Ph.D. in Applied Physics. Over the years, however, his scientific and educational careers gave way to "the call of cinema." He completed the Buffalo Boy screenplay in 1999, and entered it into several screenwriting contests. His script accumulated numerous awards, eventually attracting attention of financiers and distributors from Canada, Germany, the U.S., and Australia. "The financing was very piecemeal," he explains, "a little bit here and a little bit there."
Returning to Vietnam to film Buffalo Boy, Minh observed that the country’s economy had remained much as it existed during his youth. "Economically, Vietnam is still a developing country," he explains. "The main productions are rice, coffee, pepper, and fish. In big cities, there are factories producing clothes for wealthy international corporations. But in rural areas, Vietnam really hasn’t changed much. With the exception of one home that we built, the houses we used in the film were actual peoples’ homes. They would move out for a few days so that we could use them. Very simple homes, built from bamboo and coconut sheaths. The primitive living conditions of people living in the countryside are not very different from what they were in the forties."
Meanwhile, the crucial transport of buffalo to higher pastures depicted in Minh’s film has become an antiquated, rare practice. "That way of life does not exist much today," the director confirms. "There are smaller herds now, and with the availability of motor boats, people can find grass and bring it back to them. There’s no reason to take the buffalo miles away to look for grass."
Buffalo Boy is more than simply a scenic tour across unforgettable, foreign terrain. Minh weaves a narrative through the film’s unique scenery as Kim tangles with Lap (Vo Hoang Nhan), a rival herdsman. Brash and uncooperative, Lap treats the less experienced youth with contempt. Gradually, Minh discloses the tangled, dark family histories at the root of such tension.
The director finds other, more political catalysts for the macho sparring between rival herdsmen examined in Buffalo Boy. "In the forties," he explains, "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."
Currently residing in San Pedro where he teaches physics part-time at a community college, Minh says his schedule allows him the flexibility to attend film festivals. And judging from his full plate of follow-up projects, Buffalo Boy appears the first act in a long and dynamic movie career. One idea currently in development is a DV-shot drama set in Los Angeles, that concerns "how globalization and technology have impacted national identity." Another story involves Vietnam War-era romance, and "shows the impact of the war on second generations of Vietnamese and Americans."
Asked if he feels that Americanized depictions of Vietnamese history – including Vietnam war films – have accurately portrayed his home country, Minh responds that the very personal brand each artist uses to mark his material makes "accuracy" a dicey, subjective concept. "I feel that fiction films, by their very nature, have a creative element. Even documentaries choose what to include, to tell what is usually not the whole truth. It’s just one way of looking at the issue. Artistic license is an integral part of filmmaking and of the creative process."