Not all that often we see new (or for that matter old) Vietnamese movies and the 2018 Song Lang which has turned up in SBS’s repertory comes as something of a surprise - no pondering the Marxist imperative, no triumphal account of battling American – or Chinese - imperialism. Its soft colours don’t resemble those of the few Vietnamese films that have made it here.
What we get is a contemplative account of 1980s Saigon centering on the (still extant) Phuong Nam theatre where a traveling company is performing cai luong, a form of traditional Southern Vietnamese folk opera recognisably similar to Chinese 12 tone scale presentations complete with the painted faces and flamboyant costumes.
For outsiders, this is a companion piece to Heinsoke Gosho’s 1933 Koi no hana saku Izu no odoriko/ The Dancing Girl of Izu, Masahiro Shinoda’s 1977 Hanare goze Orin/ Melody in Grey or Shu Kei’s 1996 Hong Kong Hu Du Men. All are explorations of the ritualised Asian theatre which we know mainly from elements that seep into Kung Fu movies. Chen Kaige’s Farewell my Concubine is frequently mentioned in comparison and this one has been claimed by the gay community. The pop star leads do spend moretime in one another’s company than that of the women in their lives.
The plot shows the marginal theatre company in debt to a local loan shark who sends in her strong arm man Lien Binh Phat to collect. He’s spreading lighter fluid over the costumes, ready to set them on fire, when leading man Isaac intervenes, throwing in his watch and pleading that they will only be able to make good the debt by using the material the heavy is about to destroy.
As the plot rolls on, a terrified family finds Lien sitting down chatting with their children despite instructions never to let strangers into the house and using the same justification - that his is the moral position dealing with people who should pay their debts. Unexpectedly he buys a ticket and watches the evening’s show - the one the movie audience sees.
Later in the evening, Isaac is having a couple of beers in a neighborhood bar when yahoos pick a fight with him. The scuffle disturbs Lien drinking there and he takes out four of the hoons.
At this point the film’s actual subject becomes clear. Isaac loses his room key and has to recover in Lien’s flat. The pair pass the night together playing Lien’s Nintendo, talking next to the Simca sign on the building’s (studio built) roof or in the streets where kids play all night. We discover that Lien’s father was a musician and he still has his single-stringed instrument which Lien can play to professional standard. He has his guest sing one of this father’s songs on which he has retained the documentation.
Lien is urged to audition for the company - whose materials he had been about to set on fire.
This central section of the film is its heart. It really is too long and not sufficiently incisive but it reflects a level of ambition which is not usual. It is what makes Song Lang notable.
There is another show by the company. The older actor as the general is clearly the most experienced player and his performance intrigues. The ending is unremarkable after what we have been watching.
Song Lang is the first film by Californian Vietnamese Leon Le and it’s not quite like anything that’s been around before. Though it appears to have had a quite wide distribution, we have no way of telling how representative this one is of its country’s production or indeed of Asian cinema.
When was the last time we saw a Philippino or Thai commercial movie? It’s the kind of presentation that justifies the existence of SBS, despite the pronouncement of that dim politician who once explained it should not be there for people who were too mean to lay out twenty bucks for a foreign movie.
Rather this one than another exploit of Audrey Tatou or Bill Nighy. On a small scale, it actually does tell us something we didn’t know before and end up wiser for learning.