Song Lang, Leon Le’s first film, is set in Saigon in the 1980s. Against the background of cải (modern Vietnamese folk opera) in its golden years, we see two young people who collide on different life paths and find a special bond. Dung Thunderbolt (Lien Binh Phat) is a terrible debt collector who works for Aunt Ngu, a good-natured but unscrupulous usurer. He finds one of his tasks in the theatre cải, where he meets the opera star Linh Pung (the Vietnamese pop star with the same name, Isaac). However, their first meeting isn’t cute, as Linh tries to pay off the theatre’s debts after catching Dung pouring petrol on the group’s costumes. However, their second meeting takes them on a two-day journey of self-reflection and the realisation that the bond between them is much deeper than they could have imagined.
The first thing every viewer will notice is how beautifully made and absolutely delicious the film is. Going on holiday in the warm and humid streets of Saigon in the 80’s with a limited budget is nothing more than a technical miracle. The streets of Saigon are wrapped in lush flowers, bright contrasts and golden light. The skin tones are rich and photographed through a nostalgic lens, the grain and granularity of which are also reminiscent of films from the 1970s. Flowers bloom in the rooms cải, compared to the almost noisy scenes where manure wanders through the alleys to raise money. The well-considered style and the composition of many individual images in the film speak for a work that has been created with a lot of love and care (the work of DOP Bob Nguyen cannot be compared to what I have seen in recent years). The love and respect of director Le for cải and his Vietnamese descent is also strongly felt on the screen. The film is largely a nostalgic and miraculous celebration of the traditional art form, which, according to Le, has largely been forgotten by the modern generation, with some mistakenly believing that the film is a film about Chinese opera. Director Leon Le called Wong Kar Wai an influential man at the NYAFF premiere and according to his DOP he himself is a fan of Hong Kong cinema. It’s definitely a way to sell the film to anyone who has doubts. But Song Lang is largely his own film, and DOP Nguyen’s discreet camera work resembles more Mark Lee Ping Bean than the kinetic nature of Christopher Doyle in Wong’s early films.
In that sense, Song Lang is above all a very sensitive and delicate film, despite the melodramatic setting. In her study of the developing bond between manure and linh, she is cautious and gives the audience a slow, boiling combustion – almost too cautious. When a film reaches the climax scene with the juxtaposition of Linh Fung’s tragic opera on stage and the tragedy taking place in the dung heap outside the stage, it seems almost inappropriate. When you watch a movie, you sometimes see the scene on which the whole movie is based. This last climax resembles the scene the director wanted to show where the whole film leads. As a spectator I, too, wanted all that slow combustion to boil with satisfactory efficiency. But not that way. This scene is melodramatic, even lyrical, which seems ironic. It’s reminiscent of the Moulin Rouge – imagine the climax, where Nicole Kidman literally dies on stage in satin as her character survives in the musical and the camera cuts between the audience’s euphoric reactions to a happy ending and the tragedy unfolding backstage. The Moulin Rouge’s opera melodrama fits in perfectly with his film, but nothing in Lang’s other songs that preceded it speaks of such a finale. In a hurry, as if Le and his co-screenwriter Min Ngoc Nguyen didn’t know how to captivate the film; unfortunately, when you consider how to measure the whole film that preceded this feeling.
Dang plays on nguyệt, an instrument he had long rejected until he met Linh Phung.
This fast climax does not coincide with the themes of the songs either. The film shows the singing of the long instrument (in a Vietnamese tap dance box) at the opening. It is a tool used at cải to maintain rhythm and is used in the film as a metaphor for life. Manure is lost in life. Where he used to play in the newspaper nguyệt (Vietnamese lute), he now lives a useless newspaper that needs money. Dang is struck by his first visit to the theatre cải, where he meets Lin Fung for the first time due to the trauma of his parents in the past, as lương. Thanks to Lin Phuong, he rediscovers cải and starts thinking about his life choices. The manure humbles itself of the pain and leads him on the path to salvation. His first examination of conscience takes him to traditional spiritual places such as churches and temples, but in his relationship with Lin Phuong he is pushed back on the path he once traveled. After he heard đàn playing nguyệt, Linh Pung asked him to audition for his opera ensemble. It’s a glimmer of hope, a chance for Dung to regain his rhythm of life. Hope and salvation seem to be the two main themes. If Linh’s connection to these things seems less pronounced, he’s coming out of his shell because he trusts Dang. In Dang he finds hope in someone who understands who he is and lets him be so late. This newly discovered emotional vulnerability enables him to grow as a performer and artist. So when a tragedy strikes in the final act, she is so acute that there is no real conclusion for her heroes, her spectators. Most stories are about answering a question that has been asked from the beginning. The question that Song Lang raises throughout the film, whether dung can find hope and salvation, has never been satisfactorily answered. Maybe it was too late for him. It seems cruel to give him this hope, this hope that with Lin Phuong he can follow a new path and then take it away from him. I wonder what that could mean for a strange Asian audience.
The Chinese drama Winter Begonia has a certain resemblance to Lang’s song, but in a romantic picture it seems rounder.
I think I project – I project the need for stories that are less tragic, less unattainable, weird romances. Perhaps I am also increasingly dissatisfied after years of reading and viewing content with unusual characters or relationships that are never canonical or explicit. Director Leon Le said I wanted to make a film with Song Lang in which the main characters would have no physical contact, so the audience might only see them as human beings. But why? Bruises should be considered people, regardless of their appearance. As a man who loves the romantic era too much, where the simple touch of an unloved hand is so sexually charged, I deeply understand the power of restraint in depicting the intimacy between people on the canvas. But I also don’t think you have to take away physical proximity to escape gender stereotypes, which director Le also cited as a reason for the lack of physical contact between his characters. And isn’t burying homosexuals a more harmful stereotype when it comes to LGBT film stereotypes? Personally, I think it makes more sense to challenge a white heterosexual audience than to give it an Asian chic look by disinfecting it.
Even if we ignore the lack of physical intimacy shown on the screen, it’s because the film doesn’t answer its own questions. Shortly after my first song Long Watch in February, the Chinese drama Winter Begonia premiered. In the world of opera in Beijing we also talk about the unexpected connection that arose between the opera star, but this time with a skilled western businessman. The most important question this story raises for your opera star is whether he will choose his art for life? His initial answer is that he will always choose his art, even if it endangers his life. But in the course of the show, as his relationship with the businessman develops in his soul, we as an audience can see his fluctuations in his beliefs because he has found something, someone even more important. The story has an open ending. There’s never been a complete answer to that question. But he keeps trying to answer, right to the end. The novel on which the series is based was originally published in the genre danmei1 Danmei/耽美 (dān měi) Literally translated : The pleasure of beauty is a genre of literature and fiction that originated in China. An important element of the genre is the romantic relationship between two male characters. It can be considered the Chinese equivalent of the BL (Boys Love) genre in Japan, so it is canonically strange. The Chinese censorship did not allow the story to make the relationship seem clearly strange, but the depth of the relationship between the two men is now fully explored. If you take away the physical effort to concentrate on the emotional, Winterbegonia has done it successfully. And indeed, physical intimacy doesn’t have to be sexual, it can be love and care. That’s why I doubt that Song Lang is almost too cautious and reticent, as if he keeps himself in check by playing a safe game. That’s why it seems wrong that at the peak of the film even the pictorial tension is released.
Sometimes the movie you’re going to make isn’t the movie you’re going to make in the end. Leon Le refers to Wong Kar Wai as the main influence, but Song Lang is very similar to Leon Le’s film. His voice can be heard very clearly in this piece and he is a promising director. But one of the most interesting aspects of Wong’s cinematography is his willingness to throw away the script and improvise on the same day. It may be a chaotic and crazy process, as the video essay In the Mood for Love shows, but the results show it. Wong’s films always seem to be lively and organic, even in a discreet painting of suppressed desire, as in Mood for Love. On the floor of the editing room, Wong is ready to cut characters and entire sets, after realizing that the film he is making has become something else. I’m not saying that directors, or even director Le, should work like that, but I think it’s worth it to be less able-bodied when it comes to the first ideas and the characters and the path they take to show the end result.
Song Lang, who wants to tell a nuanced story about a strange relationship, may not come into its own, but what it offers is an opportunity to think about what restraint really means in a romantic LBGTQ+ story. When I think of some of the best romantic gay films of recent years, I think of films like Mitten Park Chang-wook (2016), God’s Own Land (2018) and Portrait of a Woman in Flames (2019). The connection between two people in these stories often represents hope. Even if the story is about something else (a scam like that of the craftsman), two people can understand each other, share something about themselves that no one has ever discovered – which in itself, however fleeting, is a moment of freedom. Since LGBT-C+ people are still often looking for recognition in many cultures and societies, hope is often what we need.