Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

Forum locked This topic is locked, you cannot edit posts or make further replies.  [ 1 post ] 
Author Message
PostPosted: Tue Jul 02, 2019 8:51 pm 
Site Admin

Joined: Sat Mar 08, 2003 1:50 pm
Posts: 4015
Location: California/NYC


Gorgeous Vietnamese melodrama of sadness, loneliness and art

"Song Lang takes place during the peak of our cải lương scene, which in the 70s-80s was a big form of theater entertainment for all classes. It pays considerable amount of respect to the genre, making it the vehicle to bring our two leads together. the movie evidently draws heavy inspiration from the great Wong Kar-wai, so much so that some of these shots and set designs looked like they were pulled straight out of Happy Together (1997), a very appropriate inspiration considering the type of romantic relationship both films chose to focus on." - tap in Letterboxd.

Part of the charm of the quietly enchanting Song Lang is that it is in its own way almost as artificial as a cải lương performance. We have the strong silent type, Dung 'Thunderbolt' (Lien Binh Phat), who's a real softie underneath the tough facade and whose father turns out to have been a folk opera performer, but has been hardened by growing up largely alone. And there's the ostensibly "soft" and sensitive Linh Phung (Isaac), the young cải lương lead performer, who's brave enough to face off a bunch of toughs. They're really much alike, both in their way performers, both beautiful and lonely Vietnamese men. In fact they even look alike, and so they are, strangely, drawn together when Dung comes to collect a debt from Linh Phung, but then sees a performance and later takes Linh in when he conveniently gets drunk, in a fight, and forgets his key on a night when the electricity goes off.

Is this really inspired by Wong Kar-wai and even his sad gay odyssey Happy Together as the Letterboxd contributor says? I don't know. But isn't it nice to think so? The cinematography is not kinetic like Christopher Doyle's for Wong, and rather, is on the static side, like the series of colorful tableaux that take place in the cải lương performances we are treated to in the film. But Song Lang is saturated with soft, subtle colors (those yellows! those greens! those golds!) as subtly as a Wong film, or perhaps something more Southeast Asian. Every scene, every shot, is a delight to the eye, and indeed Song Lang's "never more glorious" Eighties Saigon, though frequently poor and hot, is as romantic and unbearably moody as the saddest and most beautiful of Wong settings.

It turns out Bob Nguyen, the cinematographer, is Australian, like Doyle, but grew up not knowing his work. But as he tells in an article of his own, Leon Le is in fact a big fan of Wong. The wonderful saturation comes from Nguyen's effort with digital means to create the quality of 16mm Fujifilm stock using an Alexa mini camera and a special set of lenses. Our eyes are drawn into each richly lighted scene through the choice of 3:2 aspect ratio.

With its attention to glorious looking people and richly visualized scenes, Song Lang is indeed primarily a homage to a time and place, and a mood piece. As its action draws toward a climax it seems to be constantly slowing down to a still point (the cross-editing of tragic stage performance and tragic action is excruciating). This may be because while now it is moving toward the sad and terrible, earlier it was drawing toward the unmentionable. The homoerotic theme of Happy Together is only timidly touched upon here. But what else could be going on? Only here the love that dare not say its name dare not be thought of.

It's a mood piece also because director Leon Le, who, as he revealed in a recent interview with Ada Tseng in the LA Times, once himself actually dreamed of being in a Vietnamese folk opera, and wants to dwell on the mood of the second upsurge of interest in this form thirty-odd years ago. Hence there are several sequences when we get a good look at an evening of cải lương with Isaac as Linh Phung actually performing in two or three different roles, in full costume. The music is, for an outsider, surprisingly accessible and pleasing. We are allowed to soak up the atmosphere. That matters at least as much as the action. The lovely light and colors tell us that.

Until the end - which brings things to a tragic conclusion, and is so terribly beautiful and sad!


Song Lang, 101 mins., opened in Vietnam Aug. 2018, festival debut Hanoi Oct., showing in at least five other international festivals including NYAFF, where it was screened for this review.
NYAFF Showtimes:
Sunday, July 7
6:30 PM

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

Display posts from previous:  Sort by  
Forum locked This topic is locked, you cannot edit posts or make further replies.  [ 1 post ] 

All times are UTC - 8 hours

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 20 guests

You cannot post new topics in this forum
You cannot reply to topics in this forum
You cannot edit your posts in this forum
You cannot delete your posts in this forum
You cannot post attachments in this forum

Search for:
Jump to:  
Powered by phpBB® Forum Software © phpBB Group