Song Lang (Leon Le, 2018)

Song Lang poster 1“How could the gods be so cruel” a ci lương performer intones, “Allowing us to be together yet worlds apart”. An achingly nostalgic return to the Saigon of the 1980s, Leon Le’s melancholy debut Song Lang is a lament for frustrated connections and the inevitability of heartbreak, taking its lonely heroes on a slow path towards self realisation only to have fate intervene at the worst possible moment.

An enforcer for the steely “Auntie Nga” (Phuong Minh), Dung Thunderbolt (Lien Binh Phat) has long been trying to take revenge on his unhappy life through the intense act of self-harm which is his way of living. A routine job, however, jolts him out of his inertia when he wanders into a theatre where a ci lương opera company is preparing for a performance. There he finds himself catching sight of the famous performer Linh Phung (Isaac), only to run away, in flight from the intensity of being woken from his reverie. Later he returns to claim the debt, threatening to burn the company’s precious costumes until Linh Phung arrives and interrupts him, proudly insisting he will pay the balance after the first performance. Dung leaves confused, refusing to accept the watch and necklace that Linh Phung offered in partial payment.

A second chance meeting confirms that the two men might have more in common than they’d first assumed. The lonely Linh Phung, eating alone in a nearby cafe, gets into a fight with some drunken louts who wanted him to sing a few tunes, but as surprisingly handy as he turns out to be quickly gets himself knocked out at which point Dung steps in to rescue him, eventually taking him home to sleep it off where they later bond through a shared love of violent video games. An opportune power cut allows the two men to enter a greater level of intimacy during which Dung begins to re-embrace his ci lương childhood through the instrument his father left behind.

The Song Lang, as the opening informs us, is an embodiment of the god of music delivering the rhythm of life and guiding musicians towards the moral path. That’s a path that Dung knows all too well that he has strayed from and is perhaps looking to return to. The central theme of ci lương is “nostalgia for the past” – something echoed in Linh Phung’s peculiar philosophy of time travel through people, objects, and places which seems to be borne out in Dung’s constant flashbacks to a more innocent age before his happy childhood ended in parental betrayal and sudden abandonment.

Linh Phung, meanwhile, is nursing his own wounds. His mentor tells him that though he is popular his performance lacks depth because he lacks life experience while his co-star mocks him for never having been in love. Rooting through Dung’s belongings, he discovers a book he’d loved in childhood about a lonely elephant taken away from his jungle and sold to a circus. Both men are, in a sense, exiles from their pack walking a lonely path of confusion and despair but finding an unexpected kindred spirit one in the other as they search for new, more fulfilling ways of being. Bonding with Dung opens new emotional vistas for Linh Phung which allow him to perfect his art, while reconnecting with his childhood self through Linh Phung’s music gives Dung the courage leave his nihilistic life of shady moral justifications behind.

Fate, however, may have other plans and karma is always lurking. Linh Phung’s claim that an artist must know great grief proves truer than he realised, but it’s another passage from the book with which he eventually leaves us, affirming that it’s best to learn to enjoy these present moments rather than lingering in an unchangeable past. Yet the art of ci lương is itself steeped in nostalgia, perfect for a “time traveller” like Linh Phung returning to his sadness through his art, proving in a sense that the past is always present and wilfully inescapable. A melancholy, romantic evocation of Saigon in the 1980s, Song Lang is also a beautifully pitched paen to a fading art form and an  “unfinished love song” to lost lovers in which two lonely souls find an echo in each other but discover only tragedy in the implacability of fate.


Song Lang screened as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Vietnamese subtitles only)

Lôi Báo (Victor Vu, 2017) [Fantasia 2018]

Lôi Báo posterThe world can be a strange place. Tam (Cuòng Seven) felt safe in his small town surrounded by his wife and son who were determined to support his artistic dream despite its long genesis, but a dark shadow is about to be cast over his otherwise pleasant existence that will threaten to destroy everything he has built. Victor Vu’s Lôi Báo is perhaps Vietnam’s first superhero movie but it’s also a familiar tale of a conflicted man entering middle-age learning to reaccept his responsibilities, both to his wife and son and to his society as he attempts to balance his desire to help others with that of protecting his family. With great power comes great responsibility as the saying goes and Tam is a responsible guy but the past is calling him and he’ll need to face it head on if he’s to put his fracturing family back together.

Six years after his critically acclaimed graphic novel Descendents of the Crossbow, comic book artist Tam has just come out of a period of writer’s block and is working on a new project – an American-style Superhero book about a pure hearted warrior for justice with intense fighting skills and extreme athletic ability. Not many people are convinced by Tam’s desire to create a Vietnamese superhero, but his family support him and that’s all that matters. In fact, they literally support him because his wife Linh’s (Tran Thi Nha Phuong) coffeeshop is the family’s sole source of income. Tam has a tendency to get lost in his work, which is one reason he’s been putting off seeing the doctor about a serious cough that just won’t go away. When he finally decides to get it checked out it’s already too late – he has terminal lung cancer and only a few months left to live. It’s at this point that his life starts to take a strange, unexpected turn. Uncle Ma (Huàng Son), an older man Tam thought was a farmer, is actually a secret mad scientist who has a hidden laboratory in his garden where he continues to research human head transplants. The obvious conclusion presents itself – Tam decides to undergo experimental surgery to abandon his cancer ridden body and move into a nice new model.

Lôi Báo is the latest in the long line of movies indulging in the thoroughly B-movie science of “Cellular Memory”. Illegal head transplantation is already somewhat unethical, but Tam and Ma acquired their donor body through less than ethical means by grabbing a guy who was mysteriously gunned down in a forest where Tam had just tried to commit suicide out of total despair. Of course, the dead “gangster” came with his own share of baggage which leaves Tam feeling much more impulsive had than he had done before and though he seems to have lost the ability to draw, Tam is thrilled that his new body seems to be a much stronger, faster model than his old one. Not quite able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, Tam can now scale them with little difficulty and lift heavy vehicles all alone. Now he no longer needs to draw superhero stories, he can be a hero for real fulfilling his lifelong dream of being able to save lives and protect the vulnerable from evil.

Only, his new body is not quite so altruistic as he once was, and Tam begins to get off on the fame his newfound heroism is bringing him even while it puts his family danger should anyone find out about all the illegal head transplantation action that’s been going down at uncle Ma’s. He also finds himself strangely drawn to a pretty young doctor who might have been something to the dead gangster, further distancing him from Linh and his son Bu. As expected, there was a little more to the gunfight in the woods than a gangster squabble and Tam will have to learn to put body and soul back together while also dealing with the ghosts of his past and a latent discomfort with the idea of being a husband and father which betrays a lack of faith in the idea of “family” itself.

With plenty of high octane action scenes, Lôi Báo more than does its home genre justice, creating a notably mature origin story for a new kind of superhero who accepts that perhaps he’s not the hero in this story after all. Justice is served, the family repaired, the past laid to rest and there might even be a new book in it too. It has been a busy a few months for Tam, but at least he’s learnt the true meaning of heroism – something which will place him in good stead during his eagerly awaited further adventures!


Lôi Báo was screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)