Duality in Song Lang: Dissonance and Harmony

 Cai Luong, an abbreviation from an ancient prose:

“Cải biến kỳ sự, Sử tích tự thiên lương"
"...to turn the old remnant into something better and newer.” 
(Source: Professor of Musicology Tran Quang Hai)

Originating from Southern Vietnam, the origin of this newcomer to traditional music scene can be dated back to the end of the 19th century. This was a tumultuous time for Vietnam as the French had already begun imposing new regulations and laws to turn the country into a colony. However, despite the new waves of French influence and regulations promoting French culture, Cai Luong still emerged. Its uniqueness was due to  the culmination of traditional folk songs from all three regions of Vietnam combined with instrumental elements from the Chinese and Cham people. Thanks to this, Cai Luong stormed the region and quickly took on its own identity; solidifying its place in the hearts of generations to come.

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Thanh Nga (Right) and Thanh Son (Left), two of most beloved Cai Luong artists at the time in their classic play “Tieng Trong Me Linh” (The Drums Of Me Linh) – Source: Vietnamnet

In celebration of exactly 100 years since the conception of the first organized Cai Luong busking group, director Leon Le in association with Ngo Thanh Van provided a glimpse into the past with his film “Song Lang” – a movie that captures the cultural tone of 80’s Saigon, ranging from the billboards on the streets to cartridge video games. From a technical and visual standpoint, the cinematography perfectly encapsulates the core value of the film as well as building its characters through seamless transitions and stunning visuals. These aesthetic choices made by Leon Le pays homage to Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai, who is most famous for ‘In The Mood For Love’ and several other critically acclaimed films. All in all, if you want to truly immerse yourself in a glimpse of the past and if you enjoy a more grounded version of the film ‘Cô Ba Sài Gòn’, you have got to see this one!

Now let’s dive into the intricacies of the film, without, spoiling the entire film.

From the start of the film, the audience is introduced to interlacing scenes of harmony and dissonance, describing the life of the character Dung (Dũng), a debt collector for a loan shark in town: a life filled with violent and tender moments. As the movie progresses, we learn that these kind moments are the remnants of Dũng’s childhood upbringing. Meanwhile, the crude and aggressive attitude reflect the effect, or rather the expected characteristics, of a debt collector. Despite all the atrocities he has committed, Dung still viewed them as merely  “business”. This stark contrast between scenes portrays both sides of Dũng and creates a character that is hated by other characters, but to the viewers, Dung is an apathetic soul that can be saved.

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Dũng, the debt collector of a local loan shark.

Opposite to Dũng is Phung (Phụng), an aspiring performer with an undying will for the art form and an idealistic, chivalrous, and honorable individual – traits that Dũng has long abandoned. If this is a movie about how good defeats evil, Phụng would be the stereotypical protagonist of the story. But life is never that simple, and as much as Dũng doesn’t care about Phụng and his busking group, he still can’t shake off the fact that Phung is what he could have become if he had chosen a different path to overcome his past trauma. And after a recent collecting gone horribly wrong, Dũng started to have second thoughts about his occupation and wished to seek salvation, a way to make things right again. The chance encounter with Phụng might be a path to redemption.

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Phụng (Left), the boss of Dũng (Middle), and Dũng (Right)

Of course, all of the nuanced information about characters wouldn’t be perceptible without the main part of the film: “My Chau – Trong Thuy”, a classic Vietnamese play about the fall of an empire which sparsely plays out over the entire length of the film.

Director Leon Le purposefully chose this play to portray ideals such as loyalty, loss, betrayal and love, ideals that contrast heavily between past and present Dung.

Each scene from the play adds another layer to Dũng and completes the puzzle that the audience has to solve: What turned Dung to this path? If one were to took out the play, the movie wouldn’t be whole, like a yang without a yin. This same yin-yang concept can be applied to both of our main characters as well, with Phung and Dung being the yin and yang respectively. In the end, this element accentuates the duality between harmony and dissonance that is present throughout the film even more.

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Each character has both a yin and yang create a duality of harmony and dissonance that is present throughout the movie.

All in all, through the captivating acting and performances, and the nuance directing and attention to detail by director Leon Le, Song Lang is definitely a movie that everyone, both the young and the old, can enjoy, whether it be for the art, the quality and the emotions of the play or the complexity of the characters.