An oblique coming-of-ager set in French-occupied Vietnam, "Buffalo Boy" sports a stronger narrative spine than is usual in Vietnamese rural dramas and a less fragile tone in its deployment of landscape and character. Notable first film by Minh Nguyen-Vo has strong fest legs and tube potential, with even some arthouse possibilities in Europe.

An oblique coming-of-ager set in French-occupied Vietnam, “Buffalo Boy” sports a stronger narrative spine than is usual in Vietnamese rural dramas and a less fragile tone in its deployment of landscape and character. Largely set in a featureless waterworld punctuated by treetops and patches of dry land, this notable first film by onetime applied physics researcher Minh Nguyen-Vo has strong fest legs and specialized tube potential, with even some arthouse possibilities in Europe.

Based on a collection of short stories by a native of the region, pic is set in the southernmost part of Vietnam, where lowlands elide into the sea. For six months of the year, during the rainy season, the area is heavily flooded, forcing inhabitants to take their water buffaloes to higher ground for pasture.

In a first test of his adulthood, 15-year-old Kim (Le The Lu) gets permission from his aged father, Dinh (Nguyen Huu Thanh) to take the struggling family’s two precious animals upcountry on his own. The perilous, realistically lensed journey, fraught with conflicts between rival herdsmen and the death of some animals, sees him falling in with Lap (Vo Hoang Nhan), the buccaneering head of a large herd.

Returning with only one buffalo and arguing with his parents, Kim leaves home and goes into business with Det (Kra Zan Sram), who he met on the trail. Det’s young son takes a liking to Kim, as does Det’s pretty partner, Ban (Nguyen Thi Kieu Trinh).

Film’s underlying theme of man vs. nature returns in the bleakly poetic middle section, where Kim patches things up with Dinh just prior to the latter’s death. Stranded in a vast, almost abstract sea of nothingness, Kim performs his father’s watery burial with the help of an an old couple, Haitich (Truong Van Be) and his kindly wife, Ba Hai (Nguyen Anh Hoa).

However, just prior to dying, Dinh told Kim that his real mother is Lap’s sister, who Dinh raped when he was a buffalo boy. Further discoveries about his family background await Kim down the line.

Though the story is set around 1940, just prior to the Japanese driving the French out of Indochina, it could just as well be set in the rural present for all its fleeting references to colonialist rule. Kim’s rite of passage also plays second fiddle to the theme of people scouring a living from a merciless, watery landscape, lensed with a simple, unexoticized beauty by French d.p. Yves Cape.

Perfs are characterful and well-etched, especially by Vo as the brigandish Lap and by Truong and Nguyen Anh Hoa as the couple who help Kim. As the main protag, Le cuts a handsome figure, if rather remote and looking older than 15. Tech credits are thoroughly pro, though the many night scenes may not work so well on the small screen.

Buffalo Boy

France-Belfium-Vietnam

Production

A Tadrart Films release (in France) of a Novak Prod. (France)/3B Prods. (Belgium)/Hang Phim Giai Phong (Vietnam) production, in association with Green Snaper Prods., South East Asian Prod. Services, Thoke + Moebius Film. (International sales: Pyramide Intl., Paris.) Produced by Olivier Dubois, Vincent Canart, Jean Brehart, Muriel Merlin, Rachid Bouchareb, Le Duc Tien. Directed, written by Minh Nguyen-Vo, inspired by the short story collection "Scent of the Ca Mau Forest" (Huong rung Ca Mau) by Son Nam.

Crew

Camera (color), Yves Cape; editor, Rudi Maerten; music, Ton That Tiet; art director, Nsut Pham Hong Phong; sound (Dolby SRD), Marc Engels, Thomas Gauder; associate producers, Nguyen-Vo, Doug Dales, Tran Khai Hoang, Christoph Thoke, Axel Moebius. Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (competing), Aug. 8, 2004. Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Le The Lu, Nguyen Thi Kieu Trinh, Nguyen Huu Thanh, Kra Zan Sram, Truong Van Be, Nguyen Anh Hoa, Nguyen Thi Tham, Vo Hoang Nhan. (Vietnamese dialogue)
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more