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Boy was filmed almost entirely in the flooded lowlands
of southern Vietnam. Huts tower on stilts over gray-green currents,
and herders pull livestock through liquid landscape in search
of edible pasture. Indeed, there’s so much water onscreen
that viewers must resist the urge to don lifejackets or reach
for Kevin Costner floating by in gill-plated, Waterworld
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 1940’s. Kim’s arduous trial by fire involves
herding 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,” explains Nguyen-Vo.
So the seemingly endless, waterlogged images of water are indeed
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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 theater. 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.”
by Japanese Samurai epics, American Westerns, and Indian dramas,
Minh’s youthful filmmaking 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 film that left
its 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.”
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
emigrated 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 won numerous awards, and he acquired funding
from France, Belgium, and Viet Nam. “The financing was
very piecemeal,” he explains, “a little bit here
and a little bit there.”
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.”
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.”
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, while Minh gradually discloses the tangled,
dark family histories at the root of such tension.
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 French 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 begin working on a
long list of follow-up projects. 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
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