The first surprise is how animated Vietnamese actor Lien Binh Phat is. He’s talkative and jokes a lot—the opposite of Dung, the surly debt collector character he played in “Song Lang” his big screen debut and one of the Vietnamese film’s of the year. He’s also disarmingly modest. When I suggest the twenty-eight year old is probably going to become an idol to kids growing up in Vietnam like the Hong Kong movie stars Jackie Chan and Andy Lau were heroes to him he replies “You really think so?” with genuine disbelief.
For the role, Lien Binh Phat has picked up the Gemstone Award at the recent Tokyo International Film Festival. And the film also received Gold and Judges’ Choice Awards from the Australian Cinematographers Society. In truth, he’s still taking in all this sudden adulation.
“There weren’t a lot,” he laughs when we ask him what transferable skills he took from being a tour guide and an MC—his previous jobs—to being an actor in “Song Lang.” The movie is an ode to 1980s Saigon. At its heart is the relationship between Isaac’s cai luong singer Linh Phung, and the heavy that Lien Binh Phat plays.
“Song Lang” was director Leon Le’s first feature film too, although he’d previously directed two short films in America. Despite that Lien Binh Phat is full of praise for Leon’s advice and support. “I would love to work with him again,” he smiles. But before having a chance to do that he will star in the second film by “Lô tô” director Huỳnh Tuấn Anh.
Between rehearsals, Vietcetera met up with Lien Binh Phat in a Saigon cafe filled with the same sense of nostalgia as “Song Lang”—the retro music venue Nguoi Saigon – Cafe Saigonaise. There, we asked the actor to describe the five films that mean the most to him.
#1 My favorite film of all time
Like “Song Lang,” director Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” was a film festival favorite, which included winning Refn the best director award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
Lien Binh Phat’s character Dung in “Song Lang” and Ryan Gosling’s character in “Drive” have a lot in common too. They’re both reserved but extremely proficient at what they do, whether its debt collecting for Dung, or being a getaway driver for Ryan Gosling. “On the outside they’re both cool, but inside they’re very emotional,” Lien Binh Phat agrees.
They also both enter into intense but and mostly platonic relationships, Dung with co-star and cai luong singer Isaac, and Ryan Gosling with next door neighbor and single mom, Irene, played by Carey Mulligan. That is until Gosling kisses Mulligan in the elevator.
“I like the way that Ryan Gosling’s character remains calm in the tensest of situations,” Lien Binh Phat says about the unnamed lead in his favorite film. “And my favorite scene is that moment when he finally kisses Irene,” Lien Binh Phat adds.
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#2 The movie that made me want to become an actor
“Actually, that’s not completely true,” Lien Binh Phat complains about the suggestion that any movie made him want to be an actor, “I never dreamed I’d ever be in a movie.” However, one screen character did stand out for him growing up. “But it’s a bit obscure, and it’s from a TV series, is that alright?” Lien Binh Phat checks before nominating Louis Koo’s character in a Hong Kong series from production company TVB. That series was “Thần Điêu Đại Hiệp” [The Great Brotherhood].
“Louis Koo was so cool in ‘Thần Điêu Đại Hiệp,’” he remembers, “I watched that series over and over as a kid.” Koo’s character Yang Guo is an orphan who, in this period martial arts tale, learns kung fu from different masters and seeks to avenge his father’s death.
He also has a relationship with his apprentice Xiaolongnü, something frowned upon by his martial arts peers—which also sounds a lot like Dung’s relationship with Linh Phung in “Song Lang.” “Louis Koo is an original Asian superhero,” Lien Binh Phat smiles.
#3 The movie which made me a star
A “song lang” is a kind of percussion instrument used to keep the tempo in traditional music, like cai luong (Vietnamese folk opera) that features heavily in the film. In “Song Lang,” which has been compared to the work of Wong Kar-Wai, Lien Binh Phat’s character Dung is sent to collect the debts of a touring cai luong company that stars Isaac’s character Linh Phung. The feuding two lead characters eventually bond over videos games, and slowly Dung reveals his sensitive artistic side.
“I was filled with so many emotions,” Lien Binh Phat says about seeing himself on the big screen at “Song Lang’s” premiere. But his character, Dung, is so authentically played it’s hard to believe it was Phat’s first film. “There’s a saying in Vietnamese,” he explains, “‘không biết không sợ’—or ‘when you don’t know anything you’re not scared of anything.’”
So he just acted naturally. “I simply tried to make the audience believe in me,” he shrugs. In one rooftop scene, shot by the film’s iconic Sinco sign, Dung sheds his tough guy veneer and breaks down and cries. It took ten minutes for Lien Binh Phat to summon up the right emotions he says. “The director played me some really emotionally heart-wrenching instrumental music, and I put myself entirely in Dung’s position…at that point I was him and not me.”
In another scene, Dung reveals that he can play the đàn nguyệt—the traditional Vietnamese instrument. But he can’t really play the instrument. “I only learnt to play that one song copying the movements with my fingers,” he laughs.
#4 The film that I’m most excited about making
Lien Binh Phat’s next film will be “Ngôi Nhà Bươm Bướm” [Butterfly House]. It’s scheduled for release in April 2019. After the critical success of “Song Lang” Lien Binh Phat received a number of film offers, but he chose this project—the second film by director Huynh Tuan Anh—because the script was attractive. “‘Song Lang’ was an art film, and this is a commercial film—but I don’t care, I care about the story and the message the film delivers. The message of the new film is about the sacrifice that parents make,” Lien Binh Phat nods.
There were also a number of similarities between “Song Lang” and “Lô Tô.” Both featured a traveling music troupe—in “Lô Tô” the Variety Bingo troupe and in “Song Lang” Isaac’s Thien Ly cai luong troupe.
“But I chose the role because the character is very different to Dung’s in ‘Song Lang.’” The film, which also stars Quanh Minh and Thanh Loc, is going to be “a little comedic, and a little bit dramatic,” he adds.
#5 My dream film project
After making “Ngôi Nhà Bươm Bướm” Lien Binh Phat has his sights on bigger roles as well as potentially working with Leon Le again. “Leon proved himself to be a great director,” Phat explains.
He would also like to work with more of Vietnam’s leading directors—especially Charlie Nguyen whose “Chàng vợ của em” [My Mr Wife] was a big hit this year, and Victor Vu whose latest film is “Người bất tử” [The Immortals].
When we suggest a Charlie Nguyen action film, he shakes his head. “Charlie’s strength is comedy, and so it would be interesting to work with his strengths and feature in a funny film…if the script is right. But I’ll try anything, action, drama, comedy…”
Photos for Vietcetera by David Kaye.