Directed by Leon Le, the movie Song Lang, set in 90s Saigon, begins with Dung “Thunderbolt”, a debt collector, meeting Linh Phung, a cải lương (Vietnamese opera) actor. When Dung sees Linh Phung on stage, Dung was instantly pulled back to the past he has long been trying to ignore and reminded about his passion for Vietnamese opera.
I was honored to talk with Leon Le about the movie at the recent Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
Regret and unfulfilled desire are major themes of the movie. Le was inspired by the unfulfilled things of his life that still haunt him. When Le immigrated to the States when he was thirteen, he couldn’t pursue his passion for Vietnamese opera anymore. Le’s unfulfilled passion led to him to the making of this movie.
Although Dung (‘Thunderbolt) is portrayed in the movie’ as passionate about cải lương since he was young, Dung decides to become a debt collector because of the pain and sorrow his mother caused him when she left the family and the theatre company. Since his mother left, his father stopped playing Đàn nguyệt, an ancient instrument in a Vietnamese opera band, and so in early age, Dung experienced the abandonment of a parent. To him, cải lương means abandoning family and loved ones. From the day his mother left, cải lương is destined to have a negative connotation to Dung. However, without cải lương, at the same time, Dung’s life seems aimless. He collects debts from people for a living, sometimes with violence. Though deep down, Dung doesn’t approve of his own methods and the business model of his boss.
The appearance of Linh Phung changes everything. Because Dung has to collect debt from the cải lương troupe, Dung meets Linh Phung, a talented actor in his twenties. Dung walks into the theatre and then he is immediately brought back to the time when his mother performs on stage while his father plays Đàn nguyệt. It was probably the happiest time of Dung’s whole life. Furthermore, Linh Phung represents purity. Linh Phung is lucky to have his parents supporting his dream. He has also pursued his career as a cải lương actor with his whole being. To Dung, Linh Phung is the ideal version of himself. If Dung’s mother hadn’t left the family, Dung might end up as a cải lương artist similar to Linh Phung. Linh Phung gives Dung a taste of fulfilled desire.
The chemistry between Dung and Linh Phung is breathtaking. Besides cải lương, their bond started with the unexpected mutual hobby: video games. Later, when Linh Phung sings the song Dung’s father wrote while Dung plays Đàn nguyệt and song lang, two instruments part of Vietnamese opera band, their emotional connection reaches a high point.
The movie shows a flashback of when Dung’s father plays Đàn nguyệt and Dung plays song lang. This is the first time Dung shows his vulnerability because the song written by Dung’s father is about the pain of losing Dung’s mother. At this moment, Dung finally faces his past and starts healing. For Dung, this relationship is more than just romantic love, but also healing and moving on from the past. Le portrays the love between Dung and Linh Phung as the magic that frees them from the disappointment and regrets left by the previous generation. On one hand, their relationship is deep and soul-connecting. On the other hand, their relationship is portrayed as subtle and controlled since two people have only known each other for less than a day. The relationship is still new and both of them are still testing the water.
Director Leon Le emphasized to me that the subtle quality of the relationship has little to do with culture but with with emotional underdevelopment. Although Dung and Linh Phung are both careful in showing their love, their connection is still powerful. As a film about queer love, Song Lang avoids sex and nudity, elements often seen in gay genre. As the director Leon Le said, he aims to stay away from the stereotypes of the genre. Le points out that especially in Vietnamese cinema, gay male characters are portrayed as over sexualized and feminine. By making this movie, Le wishes to see if it can attract people’s attention without sex scenes and nudity.
He has done this admirably. Song Lang definitely engages the audience with its poetic storytelling and astonishing cinematography. The queer love in the film is refreshing and soul-wrenching without falling into stereotypes. It is an important and arguably pioneering movie.