The Daily Stream: 'Song Lang' is an Exquisite LGBTQ Romance Centered Around a Dying Art Form

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching, why it’s worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: Song Lang

Where You Can Stream It: Amazon Prime

The Pitch: In 1980s Saigon, tough and brooding debt collector Dung (Liên Binh Phát) meets Linh Phung (popular V-pop singer Isaac), a young singer for a struggling opera troupe that performs cai luong, the dying art of traditional Vietnamese folk opera. When Dung comes to collect from the opera troupe, he and Linh strike up a tender friendship that gradually transforms into something more.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: It would be easy to write Song Lang off as a grimy Southeast Asian version of Call Me By Your Name — they’re both slow-burning gay romances set in the 1980s — but that would be a disservice to both films. While inevitably reminiscent of Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 film, Song Lang, which is the feature directorial debut of Leon Le, is as much a delicate romance as it is an ode to the dying art form of cai luong and its place in a disappearing corner of Vietnamese history.

I make it my job to find hidden international gems, but I’ll admit that even Song Lang slipped me by. I only watched it because I was moderating a panel on which Leon Le was participating, and was provided with a screener to watch his directorial debut, which he co-wrote with Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc. I was surprised to learn that the film had been released in 2018 and that it was produced by Vietnamese movie industry powerhouse Veronica Ngo (Furie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), but I had never heard of it until now. But I was even more surprised at how deeply I loved Song Lang as I started watching it.

The Vietnamese movie industry is still very much in its infancy, though I’m ashamed to profess that I don’t know much about it. Vietnamese filmmakers have only in recent years begun to move beyond government-backed propaganda films, and a couple of the indie movies I’d seen (which full disclosure: some of my relatives were attached to) didn’t impress me. But recently, Furie blew me away as an example of what Vietnamese action cinema could look like, and I was eager to open my mind to more Vietnamese films. And Song Lang cemented that Vietnam is a movie industry to be on the lookout for. Even though, ironically, it seems to be driven by filmmakers like Le who were born in Vietnam and raised in the U.S.

Though perhaps its that outsider-looking-back-home perspective that lends Song Lang its beauty, as if Le is probing a culture he doesn’t totally know in order to gain a deeper understanding of his own identity. The art of cai luong is depicted as something both deeply familiar and slightly exotic, ultimately tying the two men together in their love of the dying art form. For Linh, cai luong is his life and a much-needed escape; for Dung, it’s the embodiment of the thing that tore his parents, both former struggling cai luong singers, apart.

A soulful, slow-moving romance that is defined by the words never spoken and the hands that never touch, Song Lang is a lovely and quiet romance that allows the brief displays of emotion to really sing.

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