Review: Song Lang (2018)

The trailer for Song Lang (2018) may make one recall of Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine, due to its similar storytelling blueprint of queer relationships set within a theatrical context. However, apart from these premises, Song Lang is more than just a mere Vietnamese rehashing of Farewell My Concubine—it holds its own as a distinctive tale of intertwining human connections set in a nostalgic past.

Set against the backdrop of the 1980s, the film follows the unfolding relationship between Linh Phung (Pham Luu Tuan Tai, or Isaac) and Dung (Lien Binh Phat), two warring characters whose life trajectories cross paths by chance, before slowly converging due to their shared love for Cai Luong. Cai Luong is a form of modern folk opera unique to Vietnam, comprising of a blend of Vietnamese opera, music, and spoken drama. For Dung, Cai Luong was his childhood: as an adolescent, he would watch performances backstage together with his father who was a Cai Luong musician himself. His childhood takes a pained turn when he faces abandonment by his mother, accompanied by the death of his father shortly after. Dung grows up to become an enforcer of loan sharks, suppressing his painful memories through a facade of violence and hard-headed masculinity. Fate brings Dung to cross paths with talented Cai Luong actor Linh Phung, who initially despises Dung for his brash mannerisms and threats against Linh’s indebted Cai Luong company.

Lien’s debut in acting was commendable, as he nails the portrayal of Dung as a man burdened by a life of violence and unfulfilled aspirations. As Dung, Lien exuded a sort of quiet intensity in his understated performance, culminating in an imperturbable exterior which housed an internal emotional conflict. This is juxtaposed with Isaac’s own emotive character of Linh Phung, one who is an idealist of sorts. At one point, Linh Phung even explains to Dung that he believes that time travel exists, but through three means: through people, places and objects. These contrasting personalities resulted in undeniable on-screen chemistry between the two characters, and watching their relationship unravel as the plot progressed was a joy.

A notable point of interest was the nature of Dung and Linh’s relationship: Song Lang seemed to have intentionally left some space for ambiguity in defining their relationship. Apart from some few scenes founded on subtext and subtlety, the only moment that really implied something more akin to a “love drama” between the two co-protagonists was at the final act, where Linh displayed growing apprehension towards his performance, partially due to his anxiety on whether or not Dung will show up after his show to join Linh's troupe. All this seemed to be an intentional move on Leon Le’s part to disassociate physical intimacy with their relationship, instead focusing more on the nature of their intertwining life trajectories which ultimately result in something larger than themselves. Thus, Dung and Linh’s relationship remains largely enigmatic in nature, but ultimately represents an interesting take on queer representation within Vietnamese cinema.

Another strength of Song Lang is the film’s recreation of the Vietnam of the 1980s. The film successfully immerses audiences into an era of old-school Nintendo games and radio cassette players, set against the socio-political milieu of Communist Vietnam. From the film’s intriguing choice of a 3:2 aspect ratio—usually used for full-framed photographs—to the vintage-styled color palette that has most scenes tinted with amber hues, the movie manages to create nostalgic impressions of an era long gone. The Cai Luong theatre scenes also provide a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes processes of such a theatrical production, with tight spaces bustling with backstage activity. It was particularly interesting to see the film successfully recreate the ins-and-outs of the Cai Luong theatre setting with a great degree of verisimilitude, presenting a “performance within a performance”, or a meta-stage moment, when considering the film in entirety.


However, the film is not without its imperfections. While Lien does a commendable job in his acting debut in this film, his character's conflicted emotional journey seemed somewhat under-developed, particularly at the moments before the climax of the film. The progression of this emotional journey peaks with a scene depicting Dung sobbing on the rooftop of his home. While all this felt like necessary moments to reflect the momentous decision Dung will later make—which is to leave his violent life behind for a chance to join Linh’s Cai Luong troupe—the entire sequence nonetheless felt under-developed within the film. Apart from Dung’s breakdown, there was limited exploration of the depth of the internal emotional conflict within Dung.

A twist occurs when Dung’s eventual fate ends in unexpected tragedy as he is stabbed by one of his loan shark victims; Linh never finds out the reason for Dung’s ultimate disappearance. Again, this remains a largely underwhelming climax, as there lacks any proper plot-based catharsis nor any satisfactory denouement thereafter. While this final act appropriately reflects the theme of love and loss, one cannot help but feel that a more fleshed-out denouement would have seen a better sense of emotional fulfillment and resolution of the movie from the audience’s perspective.

Nonetheless, one should still applaud Leon Le’s efforts in bringing the golden age of Cai Luong to the cinema screen. The film successfully captures vignettes of the past through exploring the shared histories and connections of the people of that era. For both the experienced cinephile as well as the layman unfamiliar with Vietnamese cinema, Song Lang will be a pleasure to watch. With a masterful cast and powerful storytelling, Song Lang presents a distinctive elegance in its investigation of what it means to face one’s past, all within a riveting narrative of love and loss.

This film premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival last year in which its lead actor Lien Binh Phat, who played Dung, won the Tokyo Gemstone award for his role. It has since travelled to several film festivals on the film festival circuit, having most recently screened at the New York Asian Film Festival.

Review by Bryson Ng
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