Dung “Thunderbolt” doesn’t seem like he would be a fan of cai luong, Vietnam’s modern form of popular opera. He works as a debt collector for a loan shark in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and does his job without asking questions about whatever unfortunate situation drove borrowers to his unforgiving boss.
Dung almost burns the elaborate costumes needed by a theater company that is behind on payments. He agrees to wait one day for opening night box office proceeds and goes to the performance. “Song Lang,” which takes its name from a banjolike instrument used in the orchestra of a cai luong show, follows Dung as his patience and conscience are tested. The film is one of the features screening in the final days of the New Orleans Film Festival.
The New Orleans Film Festival screens more than 200 features, documentaries, short films and more.
The story of a gangster with an unexpected soft spot for opera seems familiar, and Dung, who is a hired thug, lives between two worlds. A chance meeting with one of the actors draws out the story of how Dung found a job which demands cold indifference.
Cai luong stories celebrate traditional Vietnamese folktales and history, glorifying personal virtues and heroic exploits. The production’s elaborate costumes are contrasted with the more humble settings in the streets, homes and cafes of Ho Chi Minh City. Director Leon Le also juxtaposes the romantic and epic lyrics of cai luong stories with government propaganda broadcast from public loudspeakers.
The New Orleans Film Festival runs through Oct. 23. The closing night film is Kasi Lemmons’ “Harriet,” a dramatization of the life of Harriet Tubman. “Song Lang” is in Vietnamese with English subtitles. It screens at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 22 at The Advocate.