Into the (real) Heart of Darkness By Gideon Kouts

in 17th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Gideon Kouts

“We didn’t choose to live here,” says the old woman – who is not the real mother of the young Kim, the Buffalo Boy (Mua Len Trua) in her family home, floating on the water. Neither did the Vietnamese choose the image that the western cinema has reserved for them for years. They were there, like American Indians in traditional or modern westerns, either on the good side (pro-Westerners) or the evil (North Vietnamese Communists). Then, when the problems of bad or evil on the Western side (American in the 1960s or 70s or French in the 50s) were clearly exposed and criticised, the Vietnamese were there in supporting roles and subjects of metaphoric reflections for Western dilemmas. The white hero’s descent into the heart of darkness is exemplified in Coppola’s classic Apocalypse Now, pushing him to play his life in the deadly Russian roulette game in The Deer Hunter, or serving as triggers to a critical but nevertheless nostalgic revival of the Colonial past in French Indochine. They were victims of war in general, of foreign imperialism and their own revolutionary madness. They were fighting strangers and each other and working occasionally in the rice fields when the bombing or shelling subsided.

The superb first feature of Minh Nguyen Vo gives a full autonomy to the Vietnamese image and delivers it from these stereotypes. They are simply there, even if they did not deliberately choose their harsh conditions. We follow their struggle for a decent life within and sometimes against the majestic natural world. The soldiers, the foreign occupants and their representatives (and representation), who come and go, are not an integral part of this game of life, of this journey experienced by old and young people into the best and worst aspects of their soul, concluding with their final victory over darkness. But the foreigners may be the catalyst – otherwise the heroes, the herdsmen, could eventually live and earn their living on dry soil. Even if we hardly believe it, it appears that they hate but also love this work and adventure.

So, Buffalo Boy can be seen as a kind of revenge by director Minh (who got an American higher education but not in cinema) on the “classical” model of the “other” Vietnamese used as stand-ins to reveal the sufferings of foreign heroes’ souls. This model is somehow inverted. Now these are the Foreigners by their almost virtual presence which differs from the western movies quoted – who help the enchanted spectator discover the turbulences of the Vietnamese and, generally, the human soul. The new Vietnamese cinema brings us into the heart of its own darkness and beauty.