A debt collector and an operatic performer meet in Vietnam, in another time. They could be anyone, in any place or time. Beautiful, natural, and tender first film from Leon Le.
Song Lang stunned me. I confess I’d not got around to watching it for some time, but then its inclusion in the SHOUT programme (neatly timed with its wide release) gave me a decisive nudge, and I regret not seeing it sooner. I’m actually not sure I want to watch anything else for a few days: this was a taste I want to hold onto.
Two people, both contrasting and with a surprising amount in common, form the center of Song Lang’s story. First, we meet Dung ‘Thunderbolt’ (Liên Binh Phát), an enforcer for a firm but highly civilized loan shark. Dung is quiet yet effective in his job, but lacking any sense of direction; except perhaps away from his unsettled past. When he visits the struggling theatre to collect, we meet Linh Phung (Isaac), newly appointed leading man in their Cai Luong (a modern form of Vietnamese folk opera) production. Linh is introverted and straightforward in “real life”, while on stage he is powerful and expressive; yet his colleagues tease him that he doesn’t give his role as much feeling as his leading lady: she has felt heartbreak and young Linh never has.
Song Lang is about this chance connection between Linh and Dung, and their utterly unlikely friendship that forms and firms over the course of one night and changes both their outlooks on life. Yet this is no wordy, high-brow piece of cinema: it is subtly written, so that even though the bond forms quickly, it feels natural. These two are genuine people, with background, depth, and character which is so clear to see that they do not need to be spelled out. And they may have what might feel – to us, here and now – like uncommon professions, but both the writing and acting are so natural that I walked into that world as soon as Dung took my hand with his introductory narration.
I haven’t mentioned: that world is 1980s Ho Chi Minh City, and Song Lang was filmed right there, making full use of the timeless environment (temple, theatre, etc.) while also stepping onto the urban rooftops for a more modern perspective. Director Leon Le (who also wrote the film with Minh Ngoc Nguyen) has lived in the USA since he was thirteen years old, and this film took him back to his former home, and the scent of nostalgia wafts throughout every scene. One of the clear themes of the film – time travel, via objects, people, and places – is ably demonstrated with occasional smooth flashbacks to Dung’s earlier life; and the film as a whole transported me to eighties Vietnam.
The two leads – both born after the time of this story – are very impressive: remarkably, this is Phát’s first film role, and Isaac is one of Vietnam’s top pop stars. They present chemistry in Song Lang which is neither melodramatic nor forced, but tender. No doubt this is coming across like a story about love, but that’s not quite it: it’s about the potential for romance; the initial sapling, rather than full blossom.
Interestingly for a (potentially) romantic drama between two people of the same sex, there is nothing in Song Lang that even hints at prejudice or fear. The tension at the start of Dung and Linh’s new friendship comes from the theatre’s financial problems which was the catalyst for their first meeting: they have different lifestyles and motivations, but once they discover common interests (video games and Cai Luong music) they start to consider each other closely too. There appears to be no reason not to, and that is so refreshing, possibly one of the reasons why I want to see the film again soon. There is some lightness about the way their outlooks broaden as they get to know each other.
I’m gushing at the cast and the writing, but I mustn’t neglect to mention others in the team. Of course, An Ton That’s music, such an integral feature of the way the story was presented, needs to be credited: it was traditional without being sentimental and complemented the rest of the production with ease. Song Lang would not have been anywhere near as powerful without the production and costume design of Ghia Fam, as the gritty sense of urban place and the sumptuous opera scenes provided the perfect contrast to surround Dung and Linh’s story.
Song Lang premiered in Vietnam in 2018. Now that it has achieved wide international release, I hope many, many people watch it, regardless of background or outlook on life. The film took me out of myself and my worries, allowed me to experience someone else’s feelings for a while, rather than my own; and I’m confident there is something here for just about anyone to relate to.
Alix has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. They cover a wide variety, including genre festivals, and especially appreciates wit and representation on screen.