Leon Le’s heart-string-pulling story of a love that goes unconsummated is probably the the first LGBTQ movie from Vietnam that we have ever seen. If this is to be the standard bearer of a new source of queer cinema then we cannot wait to see what could follow that would match this.
Set in Saigon in the late 1980’s it’s the tale of a thuggish debt collector Dung ‘Thunderbolt’ (Lien Binh Phat) who without the hint of any emotion does the bidding of his shark-loan boss (Kim Phuong). Dung is a real loner, the strong silent type, who’s whole life seems to revolve around beating up the hapless poor people who cannot afford the extortionate interest payments they were forced to agree to originally.
It is when Dung has to pay a visit to the local Opera Company to collect an outstanding debt he meets the star Linh Phung (Isaac) who takes umbrage and stops Dung setting fire to all their costumes as a warning to ensure they pay up. It’s only later in a bar where Dung comes to the aid of a drunken Linh Phung who is being badly beaten up in a brawl, that the two men somewhat reluctantly start to become aware of each other.
During the night that they hang out together they discover that have much more in common than they could have imagined.. Dung’s parents were also performers in a Cải Lương Opera company, his father played in the orchestra and his mother was a singer. When she upped and left neither the family home Dung never recovered and the pain he felt he now carried around like a chip on his shoulder and he ensured that he kept his distance from everyone lest he get hurt again.
On the other hand Linh Phung who had also been brought up in another Cải Lương Opera company until both his parents were killed in a car crash. Although he is now the star of the company and the director praises his technical skill, at the same time he tells him that he lacks the emotion in his performance because he has never experienced love.
This very unlikely pair are shocked (as we are too) that they relate each other so well, and although it is abundantly clear what they are experiencing is deep and quite profound, they are still so cautious as to not let the other see this.
The irony is that this seeming unfeeling debt collector shows he really has a heart when he sells off his possessions to pay the debt of a family who have suffered fatally because of what they owe, but sadly this actually ends up being his undoing.
Before this happens though it leads to Linh Phung finally giving the performance of his life on the stage because he at last has found the happiness he has unwittingly always craved.
Long Le’s debut feature film is this unexpected and very compelling love story between these previously rather confused young men who have found their potential soul mates in the most unlikely of circumstances, It is also a love song to a Saigon long changed and the wonderful tradition of Cải Lương Opera which Le, a resident of California since he was a teenager, treats with the utmost respect and passion.
Kudos to the very talented lead actors who evidently are very successful pop stars in Vietnam. They had a subtle but sizzling chemistry between them which made their finely nuanced performances such a joy to watch. Credit also to Le for letting his camera linger long enough on the Opera scenes to get us quite addicted to them too.