An Unlikely Love
Set against the background of cai-luong (reformed theater), a kind of traditional Southern Vietnamese folk opera, “Song Lang” is the story of a young man who seems to be quite violent in action. He is muscular with a rugged build and does not have much to say— he is quite terse and monotonous in words. There is another young guy who seems shy, slim and naive. The two share the same childhood filled with memories of cai-luong troupes and activities. As their lives move forward, we see that even though they seem to be total opposites, there is something very dear between them The film in its presentation of Southern Vietnamese ambience is beautiful and I love that this is mostly expressed via minor characters.
Director Leon Le gives us a tender story of unconsummated love in probably the LGBTQ movie from Vietnam. If this is to be the standard bearer of a new source of queer cinema then we cannot wait to see what could follow that would match this. We are in Saigon in the late 1980’s and meet a thuggish debt collector Dung ‘Thunderbolt’ (Lien Binj Phat) who without the hint of any emotion does the bidding of his shark-loan boss (Kim Phuong). Dung is a loner and a strong and silent type, who’s whole life seems to revolve around beating up the poor people who cannot afford the interest payments they were forced to agree to.
It is when Dung has to pay a visit to the local Opera Company to collect an outstanding debt he meets the star Linh Phung (Isaac) who stops Dung from setting fire to all their costumes as a warning to insure that they pay up. It’s only later in a bar where Dung comes to the aid of a drunken Linh Phung who is being badly beaten up in a brawl, that the two men somewhat start to become aware of each other. During the night that they hang out together and discover that have much more in common than they could have imagined. Dung’s parents were also performers in an opera company, his father played in the orchestra and his mother was a singer. When she upped and left, Dung never recovered and he has kept his distance from everyone so that he will never get hurt again.
On the other hand Linh Phung had also been brought up in an opera company until both his parents were killed in a car crash. Although he is now the star of the company and the director praises his technical skill, at the same time he tells him that he lacks the emotion in his performance because he has never experienced love. This very unlikely pair are shocked that they relate each other so well, and although it is abundantly clear what they are experiencing is deep and quite profound, they are still cautious and do not let the other see this.
The irony is that this seeming unfeeling debt collector shows he really has a heart when he sells off his possessions to pay the debt of a family who has suffered fatally because of what they owe. Sadly this actually ends up being his undoing. Before this happens though it leads to Linh Phung finally giving the performance of his life on the stage because he at last has found the happiness he has unwittingly always wanted.
This is an unexpected and compelling love story between two confused young men who have found their potential soul mates in the most unlikely of circumstances, It is also a love song to a Saigon long changed and the wonderful tradition of Cải Lương Opera. The lead actors are very successful pop stars in Vietnam and share a subtle but sizzling chemistry between them making their nuanced performances so beautiful.