Writers: Leon Le and Minh Ngoc Nguyen
Director: Leon Le
The greatest love stories are always tales of seeming opposites who find common ground in what becomes a doomed romance. Leon Le and Minh Ngoc Nguyen’s film Song Lang, showing as part of the Queer East Film Festival is a tender and bittersweet affair between a debt collector and a Vietnamese opera singer whose unconsummated and reticent emotional connection is beautifully released.
Linh Phung is the lead in a cai luong, a form of Vietnamese folk opera, playing in Saigon for several nights. When the hero discovers the producer owes money to an infamous loan shark, Linh Phung is thrown into the path of vicious debt collector Dung. After a chance encounter in a local restaurant the men spend a single revelatory night together unburdening their souls and hoping for a different kind of future.
Le’s film is visually sumptuous, filled with the elaborate costumes and sets of the theatre or the beautifully lit nightscapes of Saigon. Every glossy frame has an old Hollywood sheen in which cinematographer Bob Nguyen and art director Do The Binh fill the screen with carefully constructed light effects to create a romantic attraction grounded in the everyday beauty of the decaying streets.
Using the unfolding cai luong as a frame, the burgeoning relationship between Linh Phung and Dung reflects what is on the stage as two young lovers weighed down by their past navigate family and moral issues in order to be together. The overt theatricality of the stylised folk opera plays well against the grittier life lead by Dung as both men navigate towards a middle ground when fantasy and reality can co-exist.
The relationship between the pair is the film’s strongest elements, tentatively emerging from an unusual first meeting that initially sets them at odds. Writers Le and Nguyen employ the classic significant night technique to bring the potential lovers together as they share their sad histories and principles while slowly letting their guard down. The result is a lovely, heartfelt connection made all the more meaningful by never fully acting on their hesitant feelings.
Initially, Lien Binh Phat is the more complex character whose heavy-handed approach suggests a man comfortable with casual violence and is convincingly threatening. But Dung is really a gentle soul drawn to Ling Phung’s good heart and wanting to be a better man because of it. Phat is especially good at showing Dung’s brooding silence, a man who says little and advocates practicality but feels so much as he transitions to a more emotional expressiveness by the end of the film.
Isaac as Ling Phung has a haunted quality, as though he is not quite in the world, something which the actor uses to explain both the effect of his parents’ sudden death years before and his decision to hide in the characters of the cai luong. And while the film has far less to say about the almost caricatured surrounding characters, Isaac develops a slow-burn chemistry with Phat that becomes quite moving in the film’s poignant conclusion.
The way in which music shapes Song Lang is very important, whether we hear the full length songs within the cai luong performance, a significant medley written by Dung’s father performed by Ling Phung or the 60s American doo wop heard quietly in the background of the restaurant, they all sing of unrequited or lost love. Le’s film is about the many expressions of love, a yearning grand romance that can never be and one that will leave a quiet ache in your heart long after the credits roll.