A melodrama, subtly told, about a love that becomes impossible, with a resolution in which the audience knows more than the characters.
The film is set in 80s Ho Chi Minh. Dung (Lien Binh Phat) is a ruthless enforcer for a debt collector. He meets Linh Phung (Isaac), the star of a Cai Luang opera, when he threatens to burn their costumes if they don´t pay up. They meet again when Linh Phung gets bullied in a bar and they both end up fighting the thugs. Linh Phung´s keys get lost and he ends up spending the night with Dung, playing video games, telling each other the story of their lives, and articulating a shared passion for music, and particularly Cai Luang, a type of popular opera that turns out to be a key to the past of both.
Song Lang, the title of the film, ostensibly refers to the percussion instrument used in Cai Luang. The percussion is supposed to guide the opera and its protagonists down a moral path in life. Ostensibly Song Lang translates literally into ´Two Men´. So here we have two characters, both played by local pop star phenomena, trying to find a moral path through a traumatic history, a shared love of art, the pursuit and abandonment of artistic purpose and drive, and the unfolding of elective affinities, a friendship of the heart, that is also imbued with incipient desire.
The feelings of the characters are expressed through opera (Cai Luang), very beautiful, full of feeling, expressing what the characters can´t. I love the showbiz milieu, the campiness of it, and it combines well with the harshness of the life depicted. The most striking thing about this film is the imagery, every composition is interesting, evocative, expressive. Both itself and also conveying mood, feeling. I was very moved by it. I like the way it melds flashback, comic books, video games, all to evoke a way of life, background, texture, the way that the characters are fleshed out, given histories. The two protagonists are meant for each other but can´t be. And one will never know how close it came to being, or what the other one really felt and did. A beautiful melodrama which brings to mind in different ways the best work of Wong Kar Wai and Richard Linklater.
LGBTQ audiences may have reservations about the end but I think the melodrama recquires it and I personally loved it. Moreover, Song Lang is a great film, one that will last, though you probably won´t get many opportunities to be seen on a big screen. See it while you can.
Playing as part of the Q-Film Weekender at the Northampton Playhouse
Martín (Javier de Pietro) is a 16 year-old student, gay, in the closet, and with an insistent gaze that speaks of assertiveness and danger. He wanders around the locker room at the swim club he belongs to, holding that gaze for that second too long, that extra bit of time that creates discomfort. Yet, when the objects of his gaze look back to return or challenge it, he’s vamoosed.
Martín tells his gym-teacher Sebastián (Carlos Echeverria) that something’s lodged in his eye whilst swimming. The teacher kindly takes him to the doctor who finds nothing. When the teacher offers to drive him home, we hear that Martín was meant to sleep-over with a friend; that he left his phone is in his knapsack and now can’t use it; that he lives with his grandmother but she is now visiting an elderly relative, and that he doesn’t know where his friends lives. In short, he’s stuck. All this information unfurls in the first half hour of the film and we quickly sense that Martín isn’t telling the whole truth.
Sebastián feels he has no choice but to let him sleep over, nonetheless making explicit to the boy the danger he’s placing him in, bringing a student and a minor to sleep in his home. Sebastián calls his girlfriend to relieve some of that tension and bear witness but he doesn’t tell her why. She in turn is too distracted and busy with her own troubles to pursue it and simply says no. Her only concern is whether the boy might steal something from the home.
The teacher offers the student food, a place to stay, a change of clothes. But the student wants more. In the middle of the night and in a moment which feels both daring and tense, the student goes over to the sleeping teacher, puts his hand on Sebastián thighs and slowly moves it up and places it firmly on his crotch. This eventually wakes up Sebastián and though he senses something is not quite right, when he gets up to see what could be wrong Martín looks asleep, though provocatively positioned like a male Lolita.
Sebastián suffers the snoopy gaze of a neighbour who discovers Martín, coming out of the shower, and flashing the crack of his bum at her. In the morning, the gardener sees them leaving the house together, says nothing, but looks on disapprovingly. The world’s judgmental gaze is on the teacher, who has done nothing but be kind. In the meantime, the boy is wearing the teacher’s deodorant, his perfume, his shirt. He’s found a way of having the older man on top of him by stealth and without his consent.
The morning after, in the teachers’ common room Sebastián hear how the parents of a boy had come to the school with the police that morning crying that their son was missing only to find him there and the father was so upset that he wacked him. Sebastián realises it’s Martín they’re speaking of but why has Martín lied to him? The discovery of the lie takes place 45 minutes into the film; why Martín lied, and the effects of that lie will occupy the rest of the film.
Ausente is a film structured through a series of absences, which begin with the boy’s absence from home the night he tricks Sebastián into letting him stay over, continues through with absences from school, ends with the ultimate absence from the world itself, and is figuratively dramatised for us by what has by now become a trope traced to Bareback Mountain (2005): the sniffing of the shirt of he now loved but lost. But, like in Ang Lee’s film, those absences are in dialectical tension with another structuring device: the closet. It’s a film that begins with the boy’s external physique being examined in minute detail by a doctor and in huge close-up of every piece by the director. But as the film demonstrates no one is taking care or paying attention to the boy’s interior: his feelings, wishes, desires.
Social oppression is what creates the closet, and Martín having to live in the closet is what creates those sidelong glances, the looking on in secret, the interior yearning facing external barriers and lived through lies, the danger, the endangering and finally death and absence and guilt. And if the first part of the film is concerned with dramatizing the thrill, power and danger of a younger man pursuing an older one; the last half of the film is concerned with guilt over how the older man could have helped the younger one more, a guilt that’s woven through with the suggestion that Sebastián might not be entirely heterosexual himself.
Ausente is a minor film, and the last third is to me quite muddled with all the flashbacks, woven in to make sense of past events and not quite succeeding in doing so. But it’s a film that delights me. It is now possible for gay filmmakers to take a small cast of characters, a small crew, and explore a situation and an idea on film, thus articulating various aspects of gay men’s lives in miniature. Here, the shooting is mainly in the close-ups Berger favours, the leisurely pace; the furtive glances (both the characters’ and the camera’s); the literary allusions (Milan Kundera’s Laughable Loves – ‘The book doesn’t tell me what I would like to hear’);camera moves that linger on empty spaces as spaces of possibility where things may (and sometimes do not) happen; and then there are the open lively faces Berger shows us (the young Javier de Pietro’s in particular), beautiful and full of feeling, a drama in itself. It’s a film that requires and rewards patience.
Because my time is so constrained and I can only write on things that take up a couple of hours, I’ve been feeling I’ve been avoiding the truly interesting, complex or problematic films in this blog, and dealing only with what can be dealt with in the time I have. I’m glad I’m doing this podcast with Mike because at least it allows me touch on them conversationally and not hope to wait for time that never arrives like with Alain Guiraudie’s great L’étranger du lac.
This is my second time seeing Call Me By Your Name and Mike’s first. We touch on issues that have been troubling some friends: class, culture, language, sexuality, the absence of the AIDS pandemic, the peach scene. My second viewing does bring up formal flaws in the film that I hadn’t noticed before. Armie Hamer’s performance comes off less well upon second viewing. Chamelet continues to seem great. It seems a lesser film on second viewing though, to the film’s great credit, I remained just as involved and just as moved. One of the criticisms made is that the film seems to be addressed to heterosexuals. If this is indeed the case, and I don’t think it is, it signally failed with Mike who watched it with restrained fury throughout, as he so eloquently elaborates upon throughout the podcast.
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Gayby is overly sitcom-y, rather stereotypical and quite funny. The director, Jonathan Lisecki, is good with actors but not with situations and doesn’t have a visual bone in his body (except perhaps that one needed to appreciate the lead actor, Matthew Wilkas, who looks like a younger ‘Dexter’).