Song Lang

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

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"Both leads acquit themselves well despite having little or no prior acting experience." | Photo: Courtesy of Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival

In cai luong - traditional Vietnamese opera - performers' faces are caked in mask-like make-up. This makes it easy for audience members seated at a distance to see who they are and understand their roles, but - together with the very formal singing style involved - it can provide a cover for those who are not very good at expressing emotion. Linh Phung (played by Vietnamese pop sensation Isaac) has the looks, the voice and the moves to keep audiences happy when he serves as romantic lead for his troupe, but something is missing. He will never make progress, his mentor tells him, until he understands what it means to be in love.

Set in the Nineties, Leon Le's film flits between the formal styling which belongs to the cai luong tradition and a much looser, more modern style which suits the lifestyle of its other lead, loan shark debt collector Dung 'Thunderbolt' (Lien Binh Phat, also a pop star). As Phung struggles to express emotion, Dung is struggling to repress it. he claims that he's learned to switch off and avoid concerning himself with the devastating consequences that his work often has on people's lives - after all, nobody in his business forced those people to borrow. One family tragedy clearly gets under his skin, however, and it happens on the same day that he pays a professional visit to the cai luong troupe, threatening to burn their costumes if they don't come up with the money they owe - a payment that Phung hastily provides.

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The bulk of the film takes place over the course of one night when the two men unexpectedly find themselves spending time together, each gaining some insight into the other's world. Eating, playing computer games, looking out across the city and talking about their pasts, they develop a connection which changes them both. Although they don't touch and never broach the subject directly, it's pretty clear what's happening between them. Le draws parallels between their relationship and the story that Phung is performing in at work, whilst his camera picks up on a myriad small movements and glances. Both leads acquit themselves well despite having little or no prior acting experience.

In recent years, Vietnamese society has undergone a dramatic shift in its attitude to homosexuality which, though never illegal, has long been taboo. Le's film is important because it's still one of only a handful of films to broach the subject, and with this in mind it can be forgiven its occasional lapses into cliché (the more so because they also fit into the layered story she's trying to tell). In the Nineties, the social climate was very different, so the men's reticence to express their feelings directly on that first night makes sense, and it allows Le to emphasise that their mutual attraction isn't just sexual. Comparing it to the legendary romance at the heart of the cai luong production provides a route to understanding for viewers who might be still be unsure about it.

Non-Vietnamese viewers might find the lengthy cai luong scenes hard going, but even if you're approaching this art form as an outsider, there's plenty to admire about the dazzling costumes, and the backstage chatter is much like that one might find anywhere. Meanwhile, if you know a little about Vietnamese history, you'll appreciate the way that Le uses Dung's story to explore wider social changes and the gradual shift from underground capitalism to something more openly acknowledged that is gradually being better regulated. His journey parallels that of a country at a difficult time in its history, whilst the cai luong story connects that period with the country's deeper history.

A polished piece of work packed with impressive emerging talents, Song Lang is a soulful, melancholic film and a treat for lovers of romance.

Reviewed on: 09 Nov 2020
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Song Lang packshot
A gangster and an actor in an opera company discover they are soulmates.

Director: Leon Le

Writer: Leon Le, Thi Minh Ngoc Nguyen

Starring: Kim Chi, Isaac, Vu T. Le Thi, Phuong Minh, Huynh Ngoc, Bao Chau Nguyen, Lien Binh Phat, Kim Phuong, Huu Quoc, Tu Quyen, Hoang Sang, Hong Sap, Kim Long Thach, Tu Thanh, Phuoc Tinh

Year: 2018

Runtime: 101 minutes

Country: Vietnam

Festivals:

Black Nights 2018

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