Saturday, July 13, 2019
Nate hood's 400 word on Song Lang (2019) NYAFF 2019
Many early critics have praised Song Long for its luscious cinematography—Chen Kaige’s Farewell Me Concubine (1993) seems a common point of reference—and loving depictions of cải lương. But the film is more than a wistful entertainment; it’s a anatomical cross section of a society on the brink of anomie. Notice how Le juxtaposes Dung’s shiftless life as a gangster with those of cải lương performers: whereas every moment of every day is strictly regimented and defined with purpose for the actors, Dung languishes most of his days away in a detached haze, drifting from empty rooftop to empty rooftop in between “collections.” The actors experience the full breadth of life preparing for and performing their art: joy, love, loss, tragedy. But Dung wanders in an anhedonic torpor, showing as much excitement when he makes love or plays video games alone in his apartment as he does when he learns one of his “clients,” the mother of two small girls, killed herself to free her family from her debts. Even Dung’s avowed atheism seems superficial when compared to the prevalent Catholicism and Buddhism surrounding him.
The film could’ve easily leaned towards the reactionary with its celebration of traditional Vietnamese culture and societal collectivism, but Le’s not interested in political proselytization—he’s telling a story first and foremost of two young men struggling to navigate life, tragedy, and heartbreak in the only ways they know how. It’s this blending of subtexts, narrative, and undeniably pictorial beauty that makes Song Lang an auspicious debut.