'Song Lang': Film Review

Courtesy of HKLGFF
Visually stunning and suitably yearning.

Vietnamese pop phenoms Isaac and Lien Binh Phat star in writer-director Leon Le’s achy, languorous feature debut.

In Vietnamese musical culture, the song lang is a percussion instrument used in modern folk opera cai luong. The idea is that its rhythms not only guide the opera, but also the musician, down a moral path in life. The words literally translate to “two men.” That instrument provides the philosophical backbone of writer-director Leon Le’s low-key Song Lang, set in the world of cai luong theater and contemplating a good deal more than simply a tragic, non-starter romance. Delving into suppressed artistic drive, abandonment and karma, Le’s debut could be described as a uniquely Vietnamese hybrid of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise.

Though the film has been kicking around for a while, its precise production design, palpable mood and beautifully understated yearning should keep it on both the LGBTQ and Asian festival circuits for the foreseeable future, and its intimate tone will make it an ideal addition to streaming services.

In Ho Chi Minh City of the 1980s, moody, slightly disaffected debt collector Dung (Lien Binh Phat) goes about his business with sullen efficiency, constantly reminding himself that his flustered clients made the choice to seek loan shark services. Their unfortunate ends are their own fault. He is compelled to confront his past, his unrecognized artistic ambitions and his sexuality when he meets Linh Phung (Isaac), a rising star with a cai luong opera troupe that happens to owe Dung’s boss money. Dung threatens to set the troupe’s costumes on fire (thus killing any income), but Phung promptly tells him off, promising he’ll pay himself the next day. The unfriendly start lingers: Phung has a slightly sneering attitude regarding Dung’s strong-arm tactics and Dung refers to the gay Phung as “your kind.” Things get tenser when Dung's boss Auntie Nga (Minh Phuong) scolds him for harassing a group of artists.

But one bar fight and some early-period Nintendo games later and the two men find themselves coming to the kind of understanding, over the course of a languid evening involving lots of strolling, that only happens in the movies. Which doesn’t mean it’s any less engaging for it. Phung forces Dung’s humanity and sidelined artistry (both brushed aside when his opera performer parents abandoned him or died) to resurface, and his attraction to Dung allows Phung to tap the kind of emotion his performances desperately needed but had been lacking. Like any great romantic opera it ends tragically.

Le demonstrates a deft hand in pulling nuanced, empathetic performances from Phat and Isaac (a member of the boy band 365daband), two of Vietnam’s fastest-rising pop star/heartthrobs, and wisely keeps the romantic attraction on the back burner. They never touch and never verbally acknowledge a burgeoning relationship, and that restraint is what makes every flicker of emotion pop. Phat’s graceful turn is efficient in its construction of Dung as more soulful than he lets on; his apartment isn’t luxurious but he takes care of it, he’s quick to dissuade neighborhood kids from too much hero worship. Isaac jettisons stereotype for the more obviously sensitive Phung, never letting him tip over into caricature.

Production designer Ghia Fam and cinematographer Bob Nguyen create vivid images that give the two characters and their individual fears and hopes a relatable and gorgeously stylized context. The quiet streets and moonlit sky from Dung’s rooftop allow us to zero in on what the two are saying — and even more importantly, what they’re not. Some viewers may object to yet another downbeat ending for a gay couple, but it’s hard to argue Song Lang’s finale doesn’t dovetail perfectly with the drama Phung stars in within the narrative.

Production company: Studio 68
Cast:
Isaac, Lien Binh Phat, Minh Phuong, Tu Quyen, Kieu Trinh, Thanh Tu, Kim Phuong, Huu Quoc, Thach Kim Long, Xuan Hiep, Baq Xuyen, Cat Vy
Director: Leon Le
Screenwriters: Leon Le, Minh Ngoc Nguyen
Producer: Irene Trinh
Executive producer: Veronica Ngo
Director of photography: Bob Nguyen
Production designer: Ghia Fam
Costume designer: Ghia Fam
Editor: Leon Le
Music: An Ton That
World sales:
Rain Trail Pictures, IdeaMedia

In Vietnamese
91 minutes