When people write about Little Saigon, about any of the ethnic enclaves that I call home, they tend to use the past tense. They paint Vietnamese refugees with words like nostalgic, unchanging, static—as if displaced from the present, suspended in amber as the world turns by.
In a theater in Philadelphia, as the lights flickered on with the credits to Song Lang, I looked around with the initial disappointment that good artistry often comes with, that of returning to my world after inhabiting another. Some people think of the past as static, perhaps rightly so. But after watching Song Lang, after being transported to the rich, golden world of 1980s Saigon, how could I see my people’s past as anything but brilliantly, achingly alive?
Midway through Song Lang—Leon Lê’s debut feature film about queer love and cải lương (modern Vietnamese folk opera)—debt collector Dũng (newcomer Liên Bỉnh Phát) and stage performer Linh Phụng (pop star Isaac) sit on the roof of Dũng’s apartment building. After a power outage, the city below is uncharacteristically quiet, its crowds dispersed, its cacophony ceased.
“Do you believe in time travel?” Linh Phụng asks, his eyes fixed upwards to the moon embraced by clouds. His back leans against the ledge that Dũng is perched on; they don’t have enough familiarity to face each other just yet. Dũng says he’s only seen it in movies.
“I think we can time travel in three ways: people, objects, and places,” Linh Phụng says. “It’s like this: every time you meet a certain person, stand in front of a certain place, look at a certain object, you journey back to the past by remembering. You’ve time traveled.”
Dũng tosses back some sarcastic response, but his eyes are meditative, his face washed in moonlight and shadow. A child of cải lương performers, he returns to his childhood whenever he walks by a theater or overhears some distant refrain. Maybe this is why, throughout the film, Dũng rarely looks at Linh Phụng directly—if he did, he might be transported back to a past that he’s still trying to forget.
Song Lang is driven by these journeys to the past, even to the parts we think we’d rather leave behind. The film itself is a feat of time travel to the golden age of cải lương that captivated Leon Lê’s childhood in the 1980s. Lê’s dreams of performing cải lương were dashed when his family moved to the United States, and watching Song Lang now feels like wading through his memories. The screen is compressed to a 4:3 ratio, a nod to the boxy television sets of the early ‘90s, and suffused in hazy, dreamlike tones of golden orange.
The title Song Lang refers to the percussive instrument central to cải lương, its high wooden click punctuating the film’s opening. Dũng’s father once told him that the song lang represents the rhythm of our lives, guiding performers on their moral path. For a long time now, that familiar beat has been missing from my life, Dũng thinks. His mother abandoned their family and became a refugee to the United States while his father died soon after, severing Dũng‘s childhood relationship to the stage. We meet him as a gangster hired to rough up truant debtors, mostly everyday people struggling in the postwar collapse. Two girls plead as he beats their ailing parents, but Dũng’s set jaw and dark eyes tell us that something in him closed long ago, and no light has entered since.
But song lang can also translate to two men, and Lê uses this play on words to intertwine his characters’ love for cải lương with the quiet pull they feel towards one another. On the job, Dũng stalks into the theater his parents once performed in and threatens to set the costumes ablaze if the seamstress doesn’t pay up. His terse, closed-off masculinity clashes with that of the gentler Linh Phụng, the prodigious lead in the theater who pays off the debt the next day.
For some reason he can’t quite name, Dũng finds himself at the following night’s show: Trọng Thuỷ Mỹ Châu, a cải lương classic. While the stage production parallels the eventual romantic development in the film, Lê loves cải lương so much that he allows the play to breathe on its own. Backstage, we revel in its delightful camp: performers trade banter and caked-on makeup, rely on assistants shouting lyrics to remember what to sing. The stage’s jewel-toned grandeur is then juxtaposed with Dũng’s subtle unfolding in the shadows. Dũng leans forward in his seat, begrudgingly claps for Linh Phụng’s solo, and whatever’s closed in him cracks open, slightly. Later, he’s startled to run into Linh Phụng, still in costume. A wary Linh Phụng pushes past as Dũng remains still, his eyes tracking Linh Phụng’s movements. The harsh planes of his face soften; a light inside him flickers.
Through a bit of narrative convenience—Dũng carries Linh Phụng home from a drunken brawl, Linh Phụng can’t find his keys, the power goes out—the two spend the following night together. The majority of Song Lang takes place in that singular, expansive night. It’s a brief flash of silver, a ripple in still waters. Debt collector and debtor become unlikely friends, and in empty streets, in the grays and blues of nighttime, love emerges.
Like birds flying south, answering some unnamable call, my family often drove for hours to attend hội đồng hương (hometown reunions). After basking in the uproar of their laughter, dancing with old schoolmates and piling beer cans on the floor, they played love ballads on the way home and told us stories of the old Vietnam, the country of their memories.
Cải lương feels like an extension of our people’s nostalgia. It intertwines spoken dialogue with three melodic modes: xuân (happiness), ai (sadness), and oán (not sadness, but sorrow). Within oán is the song form vọng cổ, which literally translates to a longing for the past. When I think of cải lương, I’m usually thinking of vọng cổ: a lament for lovers lost, years spent, homes impossibly far away. Singers stray from the instruments into unaccompanied solos, their voices clear and lonely in the air.
When Lê first returned to Vietnam, hoping to stage his own cải lương production, he soon realized that the art form was dying. The theaters of his youth had either been torn down or replaced by cải lương xã hội, a government-sponsored distortion that trades artistry for socialist propaganda (in the film, Dũng’s mother left Vietnam altogether rather than compromise her craft through cải lương xã hội). Most Vietnamese youth Lê met had never heard of cải lương, much less understood its beauty. Rapid globalization might be to blame—to the young, Westernized ear, cải lương now seems at best like repetitive melodrama, at worst like incomprehensible whining. But I also think that as my generation strives to embody Vietnam’s dynamic, postwar future, we’re quick to dismiss our parents’ nostalgia.
This generational divide is perhaps more bitterly felt in the diaspora. After losing the Vietnam/American War (1954-1975), refugees re-created their homelands in Little Saigons across the world. They still denounce the new regime, still organize memorials for their war dead, and still fly the flag of South Vietnam, a country that no longer exists. I watch them and wonder whether we do ourselves any good by treading in stagnant waters. The war is over. The world has moved forward, so why do our people keep looking back?
When I asked Leon Lê this question at a post-screening Q&A, he sidestepped it with an easy smile. Song Lang doesn’t seek to answer that big of a question, he said. The film was born simply from his love for cải lương, a love that he hoped others might share.
Song Lang avoids making value judgments about our people’s nostalgia in the ways that I’ve been tempted to. Instead, it’s more concerned with how memory might serve one’s artistry. Both Dũng and Linh Phụng contend differently with love and loss, which itself is an accumulation of love, unfulfilled and half-spent. Dũng tries to forget loss through bouts of solitude and violence. Linh Phụng, while technically talented, knows little of love and wears it like an ill-fitting costume. In cải lương, which distills life’s joys and sorrows into their clearest forms, both approaches falter.
One flooded by memory, the other in its drought. Yet on the rooftop, as Dũng and Linh Phụng meditate on time travel, they remind us that oftentimes, memory is not a choice. It’s a call to be answered, an instinct to be followed.
Queer people, refugees, those of us displaced from the linearity of the present, who love people and places long gone: we’re always time traveling. We journey between the possible and impossible by way of memory, and art emerges in the crossing.
We know that our endeavors are always futile. Immersed in the lush world of Song Lang, it’s easy to forget what Saigon has since become. Its once-empty roads now choked with mopeds, its golden haze now marred by black exhaust. Its moonlit sky, the quiet backdrop for Dũng and Linh Phụng’s rooftop exchange, now punctured by skyscrapers.
Lê knew the impossibility of recreating 1980s Saigon in the frenetic, hyper-modernized city it is now. Song Lang, he asserts, is not a depiction of reality, but of memory. It establishes setting by dwelling on objects from his childhood—cassette tapes, Nintendo consoles, cải lương theaters. Our eyes are often guided up to the morning sky, the SINCO sign on Dũng’s rooftop, and the wire-laden speakers on poles overhead. While partly out of convenience—his team lacked the money to recreate street life, Lê admits—the looming objects create a child’s perspective in a world larger, grander than it might have been.
Later in the Q&A, Lê emphasized that he never harbored any hopes of reviving cải lương through Song Lang. If anything, it was the reverse: he knew from the start that almost no Vietnamese studios would take a film about a now irrelevant art form. And yet his love for cải lương, persistent and unfulfilled, kept calling him back into memory. “I felt that I had made a promise to cải lương, that someday, I would find a way to honor it. With Song Lang, I’ve kept my promise.”
After watching Song Lang, I went home to try and listen to the music that so captivated my family. I listened and tried to imagine walking along the Mekong River, the place from which cải lương was born. Its voices clear and winding, never shifting too far from their course. Its plucked harmony dropping like pebbles into the stream.
I listened and tried to see that impossible place where the river meets the sky. Sometimes I think that’s where my family journeys to, in the pause before a memory emerges, in the soft twang before a song begins. They wade through some distant world as I wait here by the river, awash in a memory of a memory.
Even in all that we’ve lost, the journey back means more than simply mourning. When Lê speaks of cải lương, even of its impending death, his body is animated and his eyes shine.
Maybe what I thought was nostalgia is also love in its most earnest form. Maybe we don’t have to be haunted by the past to be enamored with it. Though Song Lang lost money in its Vietnam release in 2018, it’s gained critical acclaim from international festivals throughout 2019, from those of us who know that there’s still so much beauty, so much left to learn from looking back.
In the night they share, Dũng and Linh Phụng explore an impossible, beautiful world in which loss might be reconciled with, in which queer love might begin. The night fades into an unkinder day, but that’s alright, because the point of time travel isn’t to stay. It’s to return to the present feeling a bit wiser for having made the journey. Dũng begins to wonder how to honor his memories rather than allowing them to sour. Linh Phụng gains a memory to travel back to whenever he sings.
The heart of the film emerges at the end of the night, another moment of time travel. Back in Dũng’s apartment, Linh Phụng thumbs through a book to find song lyrics written by Dũng’s father. Dũng, keeping his voice level, asks Linh Phụng to try singing it. Linh Phụng brushes off the request by saying he’d need music. And here, finally: Dũng looks directly at Linh Phụng, his jaw twitching once as he makes his quiet decision. He pulls out his father’s stringed đàn nguyệt, his first few notes clearing the path for Linh Phụng to sing.
Dũng’s kitchen becomes their stage, his faded walls the same jewel green and orange, his lamp the same flickering amber. In place of the traditional altar to the gods of theatre, a portrait of Dung’s father watches over the song. Cải lương’s beauty comes from its embellished exteriority, but it’s always grounded in the most intimate truths of our hearts.
How to make sense of love turned to longing? The burden of loss, the piercing, lonely ache? At least I have my music, Linh Phụng sings. At least we have the beat of the song lang to distill the muddy waters into something clear, filled with light.
Through his father’s song, Dũng journeys to the days just after his mother left their family. His father is writing that same song, plucking the same đàn nguyệt as the one we hear in the present while a teenage Dũng keeps time with the song lang. Even as their sorrow winds between them, father and son look at each other and smile.