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Buffalo Boy (Mua len trau)

Thirty or forty miles east of the city of Ellensburg, Washington, Interstate 90 bumps into the Columbia River. The highway runs effortlessly across those mighty waters, comes up against a wall of rock on the other side, then bears left and climbs the eastern side of the river's gorge. The climb is steep, as I recall, and once you make the summit the road swings to the right and continues on east across the desert.

At the place where the highway meets the western banks of the Columbia there is a sparse cluster of buildings known as Vantage.

This particular intersection of river and highway sticks in my mind because when I was a squirt my family used to pile into the car once a year and make the drive from Seattle to Spokane to visit relatives, and so once a year I would find myself in the back seat, peering over the car door at the cluster of buildings called Vantage. I didn't think all that much about the place until we were passing through it one time and my dad told me that the original town of Vantage was actually somewhere underwater, down there under the bridge. Some years before a dam had been built down river, raising the water level and covering the original town.

I can remember picturing what the town must have looked like down there. Trout swimming lazily through barred windows at the underwater bank. Long, swaying grasses clinging to the tops of Texaco pumps.

They say memories are best imprinted when associated with strong emotions. Maybe the reason this memory so strongly imprinted itself on me is because at the time I was told this story, puberty was starting to rise around me, threatening to drown the little hamlet of my childhood. Or maybe it just bugged the hell out of me, the thought of a whole town being under water.

I have what you'd call an organized mind. In my view, dry land should be over here, under my feet, and water should be over there, at a distance suitable for scenic viewing. And so you can imagine I would be disturbed by an image like this:

That's not a house-boat. That's a house. On stilts. The water around it is the Mekong River in full flood. In the dry season that would be a flat plain covered with rice fields, but in the wet season...

That image utterly creeps me out. It's a production shot from "Buffalo Boy", a 2004 Vietnamese film about a peasant boy who is given the task of finding some decent grass for his family's two water buffaloes to eat. Not such an easy job in the rainy season of the Mekong Delta.

The flood waters cover everything, and then just sit there. Decent fodder rots, becoming inedible except in the most desperate of circumstances. It's a day-by-day, hour-by-hour struggle to lead your buffalo through the vast expanse of water, anywhere from ankle to chest deep, often deeper, in a mostly vain attempt to find high spots where edible grass might still be found.

This is one of those films that exists to define in its own determined way the mystical cinematic term mise-en-scene. Imagine living in a world of waist-high water swirling with rotting vegetation. What do you do for food? Where do you sleep? Make love? What do you do with your father's corpse when he dies? The movie itself is that world -- the images are beautiful, haunting, creepy. They drag at you, like the pressure you feel against your legs as you slog through the shallow waters of a lake.

It takes no effort of the imagination at all, while watching "Buffalo Boy", to feel you have been invited into a remarkable visual metaphor. This is Art You Don't Have To Work At. The art of the film sits down next to you, pours you a cup of tea, and the two of you spend the next couple of hours going over together what it means to live a human life.

This is a remarkable piece of filmmaking and it reminds me, once again, why I started on this project of hunting up obscure DVDs on the shelves of my local Artsy Fartsy Video Store. There are so many treasures out there you are most likely never going to see. Unless you go looking for them, of course.

When you find one, it's like fresh grass on a high spot surrounded by swill.

[Netflix, B & N, ]


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