An unexpected debt

PAAFF presents Leon Le’s ‘Song Lang’

2 minute read
The color and essence of Vietnam in every corner: Leon Le’s ‘Song Lang.’ (Image courtesy of PAAFF.)
The color and essence of Vietnam in every corner: Leon Le’s ‘Song Lang.’ (Image courtesy of PAAFF.)

Lively fans and supporters of Asian cinema packed the 12th annual Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival’s (PAAFF) screening of Song Lang. With his first feature film, director Leon Le has delivered a cinematic drama about an unlikely relationship between two apparent opposites set against the backdrop of a striking, fading art form.

The song lang is a percussion instrument used in Vietnamese traditional folk opera Cải lương. The film takes place in 1980s Saigon, following Linh Phung (V-pop star Isaac), a charismatic young opera singer of a traveling Cải lương troupe; and Dung (Lien Binh Phat), a tough debt collector for a ruthless loan shark. The two meet when Dung comes to collect a debt from the opera troupe, and a friendship develops when their paths cross again, awakening surprising affection toward each other. Linh Phung and Dung discover how art can bond strangers and heal deeply hidden wounds.

Humor, suspense, and romance

Le’s attention to detail, lighting, and production design produced a visually appealing aesthetic filled with stunning cinematography present in every corner and scene of the film. Having been lucky enough to travel to Vietnam, I was transported back to the country’s essence, energy, and elegance. Le manages to intimately capture the distinctive beauty of Vietnam’s cityscape, along with its bustling population.

Palpable chemistry and exceptional acting from Phat and Isaac made the film’s humor, suspense, and romance come alive on screen. Each lingering glance and electric facial expression portrayed by the actors made moments of silence speak volumes. As the narrative shifts between a gritty underworld and a tender romance, it is easy to be swept up in the beautiful costumes, setting, and friendship blossoming between Linh and Dung.

Moments of sweetness in the film were stained by moments of sadness and vice versa: onscreen raindrops landing in a pool of blood brought fresh tears to my eyes—delicacy colliding with tragedy.

A strong choice

The audience quickly becomes invested in these characters, rooting for them to step out of the darkness in their lives and into the light. Dung portrays the innocence we are all born with and the lived experiences that can rip it away. My emotions were tied to Dung throughout the film, continuously hopeful that he would turn his life around by attempting to heal the pain he avoided for far too long.

PAAFF chose well with Song Lang as its 2019 Centerpiece Narrative Film, showcasing vibrant Vietnamese culture and cinema. The film centers on themes of rebirth, sacrifice, and how you can miss an opportunity by a single moment. Check out the rest of this year’s PAAFF lineup, with films, workshops, and cultural experiences running through November 17.

What, When, Where

Song Lang. Written by Leon Le and Minh Ngoc Nguyen, directed by Leon Le. Screened at the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival on November 9, 2019 at Lightbox Film Center, 3701 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. (856) 993-0767 or

Lightbox Film Center is a wheelchair-accessible venue.

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