The Beauty of Desire in Song Lang
SONG LANG (2018)
Director: Leon Le
Writers: Leon Le, Minh Ngoc Nguyen
Cast: Lien Binh Phat, Isaac, Vu T. Le Thi
Country/Language: Vietnam / Vietnamese
When I think of Song Lang, I recall the familiar yet always unique experience of reading a poem, turning the page and then flipping back to trace my finger over each word because I’m certain I missed something beautiful.
Leon Le’s debut feature film, Song Lang’ is the story of how Dung (Lien Binh Phat), a violent debt collector, and Linh Phung (Isaac), a Vietnamese opera star, become drawn to each other in 1980s Saigon. When Dung and Linh Phung gradually discover they share an admiration for cải lương/Vietnamese opera, Nintendo video games, and a fictional elephant, the men begin a romance aching with emotional vulnerability. The subtle romance between the two men stand at the forefront of the film and with it, Le explores themes of regret, disappointment in the family unit, loneliness, art as healing and connection, and desire.
The film is, without a doubt, a love story between two men who have connected deeply and changed each other’s lives forever in a mere two days. After a long night of conversing, Linh Phung buys a gift for Dung and Dung returns to playing the song lang, an instrument used in cải lương. Dung and Linh Phung exchange intense looks and walk beside each other, inches apart but there is no physical contact. Director, Le, decides to subvert the sexualized stereotypes of gay men in media, especially Vietnamese media, by never having the men touch.
“With ‘Song Lang’, I wanted to make a film where the leading characters didn’t have any physical contact so maybe the audience can simply view them as people.” - Leon Le
I admit, my first instinct to the lack of a grand climax kiss or a happy ending is dissatisfaction. That’s my mistake. I begin contemplating on why I need physical acts to consummate what is confirmed in each man’s stares, words, and actions. Am I projecting Western storytelling tropes onto the film? Am I quick to become dissatisfied after years of watching media featuring queer coded (but never explicitly) characters and tragic queer stories? Perhaps the answers are yes. The men’s scenes sizzle with each one’s desire to reach out to one another and explore their attraction. We, as viewers, are left with that same want. Le creates a beautiful experience of longing as the unfulfilled desires become shared amongst the characters on screen and the audience.
In watching the film, I also notice how I can trace much Song Lang’s beauty to its inspirations and influences. At the New York Asian International Film Festival’s premiere of the film, Le cited Wong Kar Wai as his biggest influence. Indeed, WKW’s influence is clear. The film is lush with beautiful warm colors, especially in the emerald greens that appear throughout. The men talk on rooftops with signages placed across the screen, reminiscent of WKW’s composition in 2046 In the story’s trajectory in addition to cinematography, Le draws inspirations from WKW. Beautiful romantic tragedies of missed opportunities and regret are common themes in WKW’s work (2046, Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love) as well as the operas of cải lương. Embedded in the film is Le’s love letter to the works of WKW and cải lương that have clearly shaped him as an artist.
Yet, as much as Le is inspired by WKW, cải lương, and Farewell My Concubine, the director crafts the movie in a style that’s distinctly his. There’s an elegant restraint to the ‘Song Lang’ not present in Le’s influences. The feeling like there’s something simmering underneath the surface that longs to be paid attention to. It’s likely the combination of many desires - the men’s attraction to one another, Le’s desire to show us the dying art of cải lương and the simple want to feel connected to something else in the world, whether it be through another person or art.
Weeks later, Song Lang and its poetic storytelling lingers in my mind. I wish I could rewatch the film to see if I can uncover more subtle desires.