Tuesday 10 November 2020

Interview with Writer/Director/Actor Leon Le

After hearing of a Vietnamese crook named "the Godfather of Vietnam", filmmaker Leon Le set out to make a noir with a difference. The result? Song Lang, which is available on digital and DVD this week from Breaking Glass Pictures.

Where did the inspiration for this lovely story come from?

From the beginning, I wanted to make a film about cải lương (Vietnamese Traditional Opera). Then I heard about Năm Cam; a notorious Vietnamese mobster called the "Godfather" of Vietnam. Whenever cải lương performers or troupes needed money, he helped them. I liked the idea that art has the power to connect and touch people from all walks of life. Initially, Linh Phung was supposed to be a female cải lương star. I later decided to change it to a male and male relationship. I thought it would be more interesting that way. 

I can guess, and say maybe "Blue Valentine" and "Moulin Rouge", but can you talk about some of your influences for the film?

Visually, a lot of people thinks that Song Lang has very similar visual esthetic to Wong Kar Wai's films. Though I am a huge fan of Wong Kar-Wai's work, I never intended to copy his style. It just so happens that Saigon in the 80s looked very much like Hong Kong (especially when we shot the film almost entirely in the Chinatown district, one of few areas in Saigon remains somewhat untouched). And I have always been drawn to beautiful romantic tragedies of missed opportunities and regret, which are common themes in all Wong Kar Wai's work.  But that's pretty much also the theme of most of the Vietnamese operas.

Did you know much about the Opera scene of the '90s in Saigon?

Not really, since I had moved to the States with my family in 1992. But the 90s was when cải lương's popularity started to decline. It couldn't compete with the wave of videos of Hong Kong and American cinema coming into Vietnam. This is the reason why I chose the 1980's for the film. It's the golden age of cải lương that I was lucky enough to witnessed during my childhood in Saigon.

Was it hard to recreate that era on film?

It's definitely a huge challenge to try to do a period movie of this scale with our modest budget. But this forced us to be more creative in our storytelling. For example, the film's 3:2 ratio was chosen so we won't have to fill a wider frame with larger set pieces, more props, or extras. Luckily, I had an incredible team of production designer, costumes, hair and makeup who were super talented and resourceful. They all were very passionate about the project and worked tirelessly to help bring my vision to life.  

What would you like audiences to take away from the film?

I don't wish to dictate a specific message to my audience. I prefer each audience member to approach the story with their own life experience and form their own opinions. Quick note: due to fans' requests, we are about to release our limited English edition, hardcover photobook Song Lang: Behind the Curtain in November. Fans can go to www.songlangbook.com for more information.