The cải lương revival begins with Song Lang!
It’s an unfortunate fact of life that every great, slow-paced, colorfully lush Asian film that gets released immediately gets compared to those of director Wong Kar-wai. That’s just the world we live in. And although it’s true that Wong’s masterpieces like In the Mood for Love (2000) and Chungking Express (1994) have inspired countless copycats and admirers, very rarely is anyone able to emulate the highly stylized beauty and romanticism that comes readily attached to a film. So it comes as a surprise that when asked if Wong’s work served an influence in a post-screening Q&A, director Leon Le quickly refuted any notions that Song Lang took any technical inspiration from the works of the Hong Kong filmmaker. Instead, Le proudly stated that “Song Lang is a Leon Le film.” It’s a wonder, then, that Le’s debut film Song Lang captures Wong’s hard-to-emulate style quite perfectly without even trying.
Set in 1980s Saigon, Song Lang tells the story of a nihilistic, violent debt collector named Dung (Lien Binh Phat) who spends his days intimidating people in his neighborhood. Any encounter with him surely means a fight is bound to break out. Though Dung doesn’t seem to enjoy his work (despite other wannabe gangsters wanting to be just like him), he goes through each day just doing what he has to do. But all of that changes when he has to collect payment for a local cải lương (Vietnamese opera) theater troupe. Through nostalgia and the companionship of Linh Phung (Vietnamese pop star Isaac), the lead actor of the troupe, Dung’s hardened exterior begins to crack, revealing him to be a much more in-depth character than what he first seems.
Although the film might not be directly inspired by Wong’s work, Song Lang is very much a film that looks like–and feels like–a classic period piece despite being made in 2018 (see: Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Scent of Green Papaya (1993)). Song Lang has an old soul for all of these reasons and more (ironically, Le directly stated in that same Q&A that he wants Song Lang to be seen as a drama instead of pigeonholed as an arthouse film, but I digress). Thanks to its picture-perfect set design and slow-like-honey pacing, Le’s debut feels like an undiscovered Vietnamese classic just waiting to be found. There’s enough here in the subtle writing, the sly acting from its main characters, and the well-choreographed fight scenes to warrant this status. Watching Song Lang felt like watching the work of a master at work. While many first-time directors try to hit you over the head with their themes, Song Lang respects its audience just as much as it does itself. The audience is able to draw their own assumptions about the film’s situations and the feelings of the two differing characters without having anyone explicitly say so. The conversations between the aggressive Dung and the softer Linh don’t feel forced and instead seem timeless from the moment they’re said. Listen to Dung’s opening shot monologue and Linh’s dialogue on time travelling for instance–there’s already enough within these two scenes that warrant some pensive thought. Moreover, Le’s film has it all–taking on comedy, romance, music, and action all at once and somehow making them all work with each other. Song Lang juggles them all with grace.
But perhaps more than anything, what Song Lang does best is immortalizing the dying artform of cải lương. If understated romance, slow burning cinematography and snapshots of 80s Saigon still aren’t enough to pique your interest, the art of cải lương will. Song Lang is bound to do what Peking Opera Blues (1986) did for Peking opera–it’ll make you want to go to the theater and bask in its glory in reality. Very rarely is Vietnamese culture so finely represented in a film with purpose, and Song Lang does the artform justice–at least to these Western eyes. One can only hope that such an underrated and special art form won’t die out in the coming years.
When it comes to great international Vietnamese films, The Scent of Green Papaya is probably the one that gets referenced the most in textbooks and film historians. I don’t think that it’s a stretch to place Song Lang on that same proverbial shelf. That’s how much Song Lang was able to move me.
Give it a generation or two. Perhaps a few years down the line, Le–not just Wong–might become that gold standard of filmmaking instead.
Rating: 5 / 5
Song Lang was screened as part of the 2019 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF).
Li-Wei Chu is a recent graduate from UC Davis who majored in Cinema and Digital Media who also briefly studied film at Queen Mary, University of London. Li-Wei is obsessed with horror films (especially the ones that give him nightmares), films from East Asia, and really, any film that makes you stop and think.
He loves talking about film and indie music with others. He’s also a record collector and cross-stitches when he has free time. In the future, he hopes to be able to write about film and wants to find a job in the film industry that can support his record buying habits. Maybe one day he’ll also be able to play the guitar.