Saturday, July 13, 2019

Nate hood's 400 word on Song Lang (2019) NYAFF 2019

For his gorgeously realized, opulently shot feature debut Song Long, director Leon Le takes audiences to 1980s Saigon, a culture in the midst of painful transition. On the one side are the elder generations, survivors of decades of constant warfare and jealous protectors of traditional Vietnamese culture. On the other, the younger generations born into an increasingly pervasive capitalism, unconcerned with the old ways and obsessed instead with money, sex, and consumer goods. On the one side is Ling Phung (Isaac), filial son and performer of cải lương—Vietnamese folk theater. On the other is Dung (Lien Bin Phat), an emotionally deadened debt collector for a loan shark. Their lives are thrown together when Dung pays a visit to Ling’s theater to collect on his mother’s debts, sparking an odd friendship between two young men who have more in common with each other than they might imagine.

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.

Rating: 7/10

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