Set against the backdrop of Saigon in the 1980s, an unlikely bond forms between an underground debt collector and a Vietnamese opera performer. Los Angeles-based Australian cinematographer Bob Nguyen brings director Leon Le’s Song Lang brilliantly to life on the silver screen.
By Bob Nguyen.
This film was the second time I had the opportunity to shoot a feature film in Vietnam. It was, however, my first collaboration with director Leon Le.
I got a call in March of 2017 regarding a period piece project based in Ho Chi Minh City (formally Saigon) in Vietnam. One of the line producers I knew introduced me to Leon, who had returned to Vietnam from the United States to make his first feature. Leon has an amazing passion for Vietnamese traditional opera. We spent two hours just talking about his childhood memories and how he really wanted to bring it to a big screen. A day later I got to read the script and found it quite remarkable. It was one of those projects that you couldn’t say no to.
The story takes place in 1980s Saigon, where Traditional Vietnamese Opera was at its peak. ‘Song Lang’ (or ‘The Tap Box’ in Vietnamese) is the name of an instrument used in traditional opera to keep rhythm. The name may also be understood as ‘two men’.
The story follows the life of Dung ‘Thunderbolt’, who is a debt collector. Dung happens to meet Linh Phung who is a star of the traveling opera troupe. After an unlikely friendship forms between the two men, Ling Phung learns how a lived life is necessary for art and Dung follows art back to a life worth living.
Leon is a smart director. I felt like we got on quite well after the first meeting even though we came from different backgrounds. Le is a big fan of Wong Kar Wai. While I grew up in Melbourne, learning Australian films and culture, I didn’t get to watch Wong Kar Wai films, or even Christopher Doyle’s work. My biggest influencer is Janusz Kaminski. I like something gritty and a little bit edgy. I think there was an advantage that I had never watched a single film of Wong Kar Wai or Christopher Doyle before I met Leon. It gave me a fresh eye approaching this project.
I immediately thought of Super 16mm after finishing reading the script and Leon agreed. I knew it would have to be on 16mm Fujifilm stock. The grain, colour and highlight retention would create a very specific feeling for this story. It would feel like looking at photographs from the past. The quick turn around and budget limitations, however, did not allow us to go with film, and unfortunately the closet accessible labs were in Hong Kong.
I went to HK Films, a rental house in Vietnam, for a solution and the guys were really supportive. I took all their lens sets out for a test and we finally landed at the Alexa Mini with a set of Zeiss Super Speed Mark III, one of my favourite lens sets of all time.
I am not a fan of new modern lenses since they are often too sharp, even in the edges and corners where nothing interesting is truly happening.
For Song Lang, I specifically wanted the skin tones to be creamy and without reflection. I took a special set of polarising filters from 1, 1.5 to 2 stops but I ended up having the 2 stop polariser in front of the camera for 100% of the film. Sometimes I would dial in a second polariser and rotate them against each other.
I intentionally pitched to Leon about shooting this movie in a 3:2 aspect ratio, the aspect ratio of full frame photography, which I had used on a recent feature film called The Perfect Host (2016). I wanted every frame on screen to be just like a photograph. It was challenging to shoot with a tall aspect ratio but Song Lang is a character-driven script and I thought going with a widescreen format wouldn’t help, but rather distract when we go in for closeups. It was totally an artistic choice than trying to match the old 4:3 aspect ratio, just because it was a period piece.
I was lucky to collaborate with one of the finest production designers in town, Ghia Pham to work with us on recreating the 1980s. We drove around to explore the remaining old town of Saigon for weeks before the team could actually sit down at the table and visualise what our sets were going to look like. Leon and I were totally certain that we wouldn’t want to build anything, even that would make it more practical to shoot. The team gathered hundreds of pictures of Saigon in the 1980s so we could make sure everything should be historically correct. Some of the old theatres were too small or broken down. We had to use two different locations for the theatre in the final movie.
The production design team did a fantastic job at providing shoot-able conditions at every location. The sets looked stunning, so I didn’t want to have them look lit at all. The lighting had to be natural and motivated. To keep it minimal I even had the production design team hand pick and modify all the little practical lamps, so I could get enough exposure for the night interior scenes.
We wanted to re-create the actual setting where the story took place, as how things would look thirty years ago. All of the film was shot in practical locations. Often times we would have to deal with tiny spaces, like shooting day interior in a 10m² house with three actors, or filming on a roof top at night.
Leon and I were quite on point most of the time. He likes to let everything play out naturally. I lit everything in a way to give actors more freedom to move or walk around. I think we speak the same language on set. The shot-list was out of the window after the first day. We would simply talk through the scene, block it then shoot it.
Song Lang follows the lives of two contrasting characters. Although the two individuals have different lives and directions, they have one thing in common; a passion for Vietnamese Opera called ‘Cai Luong’. I wanted to have different visual approaches for each character through composition while keeping the colours and tone consistent throughout the movie. I wanted to give myself total freedom on how each character is framed. There was really no rule. It was all based on how the scene played out.
Sometime they would appear at the very edge or corner of the screen in their close ups. Sometimes I would lead them or short side them based on the feeling of the scene. I wanted every frame to say something rather than just recapturing the moment. It is a non-linear plot and the very first shot of the film, a close up of Dung, is an interesting one. He is framed centred but also on the bottom of the frame. Its balance and unbalance at the same time.
Dung and Phung slowly form a friendship over the course of two days. Composition gradually becomes very tight, we get closer to their characters as they discover that they have many things in common. In the final close up of Phung, he is shifted to the bottom left corner of the frame.
It was one of the tightest schedules I had ever come across on a studio feature. We did thirty-two shooting days in total, spanning over five months. We had to stop for roughly three months in between due to the schedule of the theatres. Even so, I did not want to cut any corners or make any compromises.
I signed up for fourteen-hour days. They have a very different studio system in Vietnam than in Australia or the United States. I used to work with the twelve-hour hard wrap call in the United States, but you can’t really apply that to Vietnam. My days would generally end at the fourteen hours mark. If we didn’t get the shot, we would continue the next day.
I started working in Melbourne, where as a cinematographer, I would shoot and operate myself, until I moved to Los Angeles. The bigger scale of production requires you to have camera operators to share the work and I slowly got used to that system.
I couldn’t bring my long-time operator who I worked with in the United States, however I was lucky enough to have two of the finest operators in Vietnam to assist me, Ngoc Duy and Xuan Minh. I had worked with them previously on the Vietnamese feature Sut (2016). My camera crew on Song Lang consisted of seven Camera Assistants and two Focus Pullers for two camera packages.
The local lighting crew from HK Films are extremely supportive and talented. I had Gaffer Hung Nguyen, who also worked with me on Sut, to take charge of the lighting department. The lighting package was scaled down to the size and the limitation of location as well. We had two 18k HMI Fresnel, one Arrimax 18k, four 6k HMI Fresnels always on board with us together with a set of Tungsten Fresnel ranging from 2k to 12k. Sometime we would fly in some extra Arri M90s for extra punch.
I didn’t want the film to feel ‘lit’ in any way, because I was trying to achieve every frame feeling like a photograph taken at the time in the past. Although colours in Song Lang are rich and vibrant, my lighting should look as natural as possible. Having said that, natural lighting is the hardest thing to achieve when you have to deal with weather and location. We did not have a lot of daytime exterior scenes, so I tried to keep it simple as much as we could. The assistant director team were able to arrange the shooting schedule to help with getting the wide shot at the right time. I did use some Arrimax 18k for close up work when we were outside.
Our day interiors became challenging when we had a few houses that were quite small on both inside and outside the set. I don’t enjoy putting light source inside the house or set because you can end up with a lot of unmotivated light and the set looks ‘stagey’.
There was a scene inside that tiny 10m² house where the lighting crew had to pull everything out of the truck so I could even get the right exposure level at 1600 ISO wide open. I wanted the main source to come from the windows but did not want to shine anything directly through it.
We positioned a huge 20’ x 12’ silk at a ninety degree angle directly on top of the windows outside. Two 18k HMI, one Arrimax 18k, two M90 and four 6k HMI were used to bounce from underneath through the overhead. Probably about 10% of which came through the windows with a heavy curtain. But that was the best 10% quality of light you could have ever asked for.
For the scenes inside the opera theatres, I relied heavily on stage lighting. The rigging team was able to hide twenty LED Par Cans just high enough, out of frame, to create different colours and atmospheres for the plays. A couple of 12k and 5k Fresnel units were on dimmers for the stage ambience while an 18k HMI Fresnel shot through a series of CTS gels to create the effect of a golden beam through the opening curtain.
For post-production work, we went to Pixels Garden. They had an amazing team that knew my workflow very well. Leon and I went for that high-saturation, warm and contrasty look. I didn’t want to desaturate the images to make it look old. We used a rich, warm, golden tone for the film because that’s how everyone remembers Vietnamese opera from the 1980s.
The colour grade process took about six weeks to complete. It was rather complicated, more than any other projects I had done. I had a specific look-up table (LUT) created, tested then applied to our viewing monitors. The LUT took out a lot of highlight and warm colour of the image, so forced me to shoot with a very high/wrong/unbalanced colour temperature while on set.
Huy Phuoc, the film’s Colorist, would have to calibrate the uncorrected image back to neutral with a Rec709. We then replaced the Rec709 with the created LUT on corrected images before we would start adding colours. It gives you a different feel when doing it this way, just like I would prefer to shoot tungsten stock for uncorrected in day light, and then correct it in the lab. It feels different than shooting straight with day light stock or using an 85 filter on tungsten film.
You always wish you could do better. I thought that it would be better if we could financially recreate more wide-angle shots of Saigon in the 1980s.
I think my biggest mistake was not putting myself in the perspectives of the ‘mass audience’.
After watching the final cut in the theatre a couple of times, I realised that one can be visually smothered as I tried to perfect composition and lighting of every frame. “Sometime you would need to give the audience a little room to breathe”, said one of my cinematography mentors, K’Linh Nguyen. Had I been easier on myself and let the images play out a little simpler, Song Lang might have been a finer piece.
Bob Nguyen is a cinematographer based in Los Angeles and Melbourne. Nguyen has photographed over thirty narrative projects captured on 16mm and 35mm film.