LAAPFF Interview: Director Leon Le on ‘Song Lang’
An unlikely bond forms between an underground debt collector and a cải lương “Vietnamese opera” performer against the backdrop of Saigon in the 80s. -IMDb
Where did the idea for the film come from, and what were the inspirations behind it?
Growing up, I was obsessed with Vietnamese folk opera (cải lương). My dream was to grow up and become a Vietnamese opera performer. But when my family and I moved to the States when I was 14, I couldn’t really continue pursuing that dream. But I’ve always wanted to do something with cải lương eventually. After 20 years as a musical theater performer in New York, I decided it’s time to go back to Vietnam and finish that dream that was abandoned for a while. It just so happened that when we finished the project, the film was released right on the 100 year anniversary of cải lương. We didn’t plan for it, and it just happened to be that way. Maybe it’s meant to be.
For a lot of us, this will be our first exposure to cải lương. What is it about Vietnamese opera that draws you to it, and what makes it stand out from anything else that you’ve encountered?
Hearing that makes me happy and makes me feel that setting the spotlight on this particular art form that I love is a great effort. Young people in Vietnam nowadays don’t even know about cải lương, and it’s a dying art form. A lot of people, when they hear about it, mistake it for Chinese opera—which is completely different. One thing that I love about cải lương is how it has set melodies for certain situations and scenarios. When you’re angry. When you’re sad. When there is a romance scene. It’s depending on the composer to put certain melodies and songs into certain situations. It just shows the skills and emotions [of the composer]. For the audience, they already know these melodies, because it’s the same melodies for each opera. And yet, it’s still able to evoke emotion and new experiences based on these melodies, and they’re still able to drive the story and draw people in. I think that’s one of the special things about the art form that not many other operas have. With musical theater, every show has a different score. Same with opera, and same with Peking opera. That’s one aspect about Vietnamese opera that I love a lot. And it’s just something that’s very Vietnamese.
Growing up in America and getting older and being exposed to a lot of different cultures, I just learned to appreciate my culture more as I grew older, and became more proud of it. There was a long time where I was trying to be as American as possible and deny my heritage and try to fit in. As I grew older, I realized that that’s what makes me special—knowing where I come from and appreciating my own culture and seeing its beauty.
What was the process like reviving cải lương as an art form? Did your actors have any problems getting into character since the film is set in 80s Saigon?
So I decided to write whole new operas. I wrote it with another writer—we had all new lyrics for the opera. The reason is, there’s a lot of famous operas that people are familiar with, but it’s a double-edged sword because I wanted all of my actors to sing the opera themselves without using a voice double. Therefore, I didn’t want the audience to compare my actors with famous opera performers who has already performed those songs before. I don’t want them to say, “oh, I heard that opera before, and it sounds better with so-and-so.” I wanted to eliminate that, so the best way is to write all new [operas] so they had nothing to compare it to. It’s a very modestly budgeted film so we didn’t have a lot of time to prep the actors. We only had a couple of months to send the actors to opera school to learn how to play their instruments and the singing style. Isaac, the actor who played the opera performer, is a pop star in Vietnam. It’s quite a big challenge for him to switch from pop music to opera and this very stylized type of acting. But I think he did a stellar job considering the short time he had. Of course, I never expected him to reach the level of a professional opera performer, but I think the artistry is in when the actors do everything themselves instead of just lip-synching to someone else’s voice. That’s too easy.
Saigon is very different nowadays. All the old buildings have been demolished and turned into super-malls and apartment buildings. One of the most challenging things we had to do was find an opera theater, because they’re basically non-existent in Vietnam anymore. But even with the challenges, it forced us to be more creative and it forced us to find a new way to tell the story and not rely on big scenes of the city. We don’t have the money for that kind of big scene anyways. Therefore, it forced us to turn the film into something very intimate, and it was much more fitting for the story as well. Those are the things that you will see, and that comes with the aspect ratio of the film, which is 3:2, not 4:3. It’s the photograph ratio, which is very rarely seen on screen in films.
In the film, Dung (Linh Bien Phat) is quite the interesting character—he’s gangster-like and violent, yet he has this soft side to him. Where did the inspiration for the character come from?
It was inspired by a real life story of Năm Cam, which is a notorious gangster in Vietnam in the 80s. In the end, he finally got captured and executed, but he is famous for being very supportive of cải lương performers and he was in love with cải lương as well as many other theatrical art forms in Vietnam. I thought it was very interesting how this gangster, who is notoriously known for being very violent, had a tender heart towards performers and artists and opera. I find it so interesting that art has the power to connect, and doesn’t discriminate whether you’re high class or low class or whether you’re a gangster or an artist. That’s the incredible thing to me. Art has the ability to soften the heart. That was the main inspiration, and that’s who this character was loosely based on.
As a Vietnamese American, what was it like going back to Vietnam and making this movie?
Going back to Vietnam was very interesting… I started going back to Vietnam in 2007 and I started working there as an actor. But after working on this film, this is the longest time I stayed in Vietnam continuously. After the film came out, this is the first time I feel like I’m really returning to my country—not as a tourist and not as a foreigner. I feel like I’m part of the country. I think that’s partly because I’ve been living there and working there for a long time.
But hearing the responses after the film came out, and having people understanding and sharing my point of view and emotions that I put into the film, I feel like I’m not alone anymore. In the end, I’m still Vietnamese at heart. It’s in my blood. The way I think, the way I react to things, and the way I analyze things. These people understood me and shared my point of view. Through that I have more and more fans and friends—hearing their stories and after their reviews online, I feel like these are the people who understand me. Of course, I’ve built a life in America, but there’s still that barrier of culture. There are things that my very close American friends don’t understand… like fish sauce. These people do! They don’t understand my passion for cải lương, but these Vietnamese people do. There are some things that you can’t compare. This is the first time I’m really returning to who I am, and I have my own little claim to a piece of Vietnam now.
Ultimately, what do you want your audiences to take away from the film?
First of all, it’s a universal story—love and relationships. I feel that any language, any culture you can relate to that. That was the main thing that I picked for the film. It’s a common theme that anyone can relate to. Also, that Vietnam is beautiful. There’s more to Vietnam than war and the stereotypes that people think about when they think about Vietnam. We have a lot of culture to offer as well!
Just that alone—if people can get that out of the film, that would make me happy. I’m not too ambitious—like changing the world with a film, but it’s my tribute to an art form that I’ve loved for a long time. Especially when it’s fading away. Basically, I achieved my dream of becoming a cải lương performer.
Li-Wei Chu is the chief editor of From the Intercom. When he’s not editing drafts and searching for new artists to cover for the website, he loves watching cult films, cooking, and listening to his ever-growing collection of vinyl records. You can follow him on LetterBoxd and make fun of his taste in movies here!