A Life in Water By Henrik Uth Jensen
The opening images of Minh Nguyen-Vo’s Buffalo Boy (Mua Len Trau) has a young girl, Lam, discover some bones and a grinding stone in the muddy field of Vietnam ‘s Ca Mau. The occasion has come for her grandfather, Kim, to finally tell her about the family’s history and his own coming of age.
For generations, life has followed the seasons. In the dry season they are working the rice fields, planting and sowing. During the rainy season, they are buffalo boys en route to places where the water buffalo can grass. It has been like this for generations, and Buffalo Boy describes how this cycle finally comes to an end.
“The water would cover the land. Rotting everything; the grass and the houses, the buffaloes and the men.” Kim’s voice over is our guide to the story, but the images of the old man and the child breaks down the sense of time. Is it the time of the recounting or the time of the recounted? Is Kim the old man or the child? From its earliest images, Buffalo Boy creates an ambiguity that invites the spectator to pay close attention and note the gaps in this seemingly simple narrative.
The remote Ca Mau region of French-occupied southern Vietnam in 1940 is untouched by modernity, a land where everything that is solid rots in the water. Even family units and bonds. It’s soon revealed that the woman who has raised Kim didn’t give birth to him. Just as Kim has never known his biological mother, he will become a father to a son, who doesn’t know his biological father. These are families by choice, more than blood.
Kim’s story begins when the fifteen-year-old Kim (newcomer Le The Lu) puts aside tending to his family’s two buffaloes to join Lap and his group of ‘buffalo boys,’ not knowing the cause of the hostility between Lap and his own father, Dien. But as the voice-over reveals, water is rotting men, and that is part of the reason Dien and his former pupil, Lap, can no longer be friends.
In this respect, Buffalo Boy is the story about Kim’s first encounter with the pleasures and dangers of the outside world – alcohol, weed, love; and the revelation of the dark, shameful moments in the family’s history. In its juxtaposition of the daily routine of buffalo herding (leading the buffalos through the muddy water, collecting floating grass for the herd, paying off corrupt officials, and setting camp), with events like fighting bandits and rival gangs, the film has the scope of an epic western. It contains violence, but in no way focuses on the violence. The real subject is the relationship between the men, the men and the landscape – or, more accurately, the waterscape.
In the cyclical lifestyle of the buffalo boy, Kim has to deal with both the family’s past and his own future. After his first trip, he returns to his parents only to quarrel with his father about whether they should sell the buffaloes or continue as before. Kim reacts by abandoning his parents, with the result that he’s on his own.
Kim befriends fellow buffalo boy Det and they become competitors to Lap’s band of herders. When work allows it, the two young men stay near Ban, the young mother of Det’s child, Thieu. And as Det has not revealed himself as father to his five year old son, Kim gradually takes over the role and responsibility of a father. Neither Kim, Det or Ban mention Kim’s obvious infatuation with Ban – in a silent scene his advances, first tender, then violent, are rejected. Their triangle is not solid, and it’s broken in a way truer to life and the characters than to the conventions of storytelling.
The family problem remains unresolved, and when Kim finally meets his father again, Dinh is dying. In a boat in the middle of the flooded fields, the father reveals his shameful secret to his son just before he dies.
Director Minh follows this with a spectacular scene, as Kim finds himself with his dead father at a house on sticks in the midst of a flooded landscape. With no solid burial ground, the best way to handle the body is to wrap it and weigh it down so it sinks, safe from attacks by crows. The elderly couple who lives in the house offers their mill to weigh down the body down, yet the husband is reluctant, since the mill, consisting of a base stone and mill stone, is probably their most valuable possession. When they finally give up the mill stone, the woman offers the whole mill: “What use is the base without the mill?” If Kim or the old man knows the answer, they can’t bring themselves to say it out loud. The water is not only an obstacle; it has become the container of dead.
By convention, water signifies life, but Buffalo Boy demonstrates the arbitrariness of this convention by emphasizing the water’s association with death – flood, starvation, burial ground. “There are dead things in the water,” Kim later explains to the young boy Thieu, “Trees, plants. buffaloes. and men.” In that way, Buffalo Boy reveals the connection between life and death, between permanence and transition.
Water is everywhere in Buffalo Boy, and it also determines the film’s look and style. The scenery as shot by cinematographer Yves Cape (whose other work includes Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanité and the upcoming Flandres ) is almost monochrome. The water has drained the landscape of any colour. The grass is the palest green, the grey sky is heavy with rain. The water itself is murky. The people are clothed as to not disturb this palette.
If water is the dominant visual motif, the bamboo flute is the sonic equivalent. The recurring musical motif on the soundtrack is an old Khmer tune, which Kim has learned from his father and which he passes on to Thieu. As played on the bamboo flute, the tune sounds at times full of longing, and at other times is rich with joy. In the scene where Kim tries to woo Ban, though, the flute becomes soundless, the melody whispered, as if Kim wants to express the sadness, the longing and the promise of joy that he can’t put into words. Just like the water, the melody can take on any form and meaning. Ton That Tiet’s non-intrusive score is sparse, composed more with tonal suggestions than actual melodies.
Buffalo Boy is the feature debut by California-born director Minh, who also wrote the screenplay inspired by Son Nam ‘s collection of short stories, Scent of the Ca Mau Forest . And the film certainly has the qualities of both collection and recollection. Its episodes and situations accumulate to more than just a narrative. These are the moments worth remembering – or hardest to forget – for Kim, and the spectator.
At the Palm Springs International Film Festival’s section for films competing for the Academy nomination as Best Foreign Film, there were many excellent entries, but this accomplished first feature was the one most worth remembering.