In Barley Norton’s documentary film Hanoi Eclipse: The Music of Dai Lam Linh, produced earlier this year, the composer Ngoc Dai uses foul language, eats dog meat and has a reputation for being a “madman”, but he is mostly passionately in love with music. “Dai is one of God’s special creations,” adds Thanh Lam, the Lam of the musical triad Dai Lam Linh, but “Dai is very talented, his music is very human … that’s what makes me want to work with him, even when he’s unbearable.”
Funded by a grant from the Getty Foundation, Norton, an ethnomusicologist who teaches at Goldmiths College in London, spent four months filming and interviewing the band leading up to the recording of the group’s first CD and culminating in their concert at the Nha Hat Lon or Opera House in Hanoi in April 2009. The film is a stunning portrait, not just of Dai and the singers Linh Dung and Thanh Lam, but of artists who try to defy convention and push the limits of aesthetic sensibilities in an atmosphere of censorship and conformity. The film is a gem and contains many memorable moments including candid shots of the censorship board’s review of the band’s material after sitting in on a rehearsal. “In the performance there are some very developed sections when the singers are very expressive. I think you should correct those sections so there is less noise and screaming” said one member. Another added: “We think it would be better if you took your music to Europe.” Other scenes include Dai’s visit to his parents’ home in the countryside. His father plays the monochord for his son, who promptly corrects his style.
Norton is a sensitive and sensible interviewer. He managed to blend into the scenery and make himself invisible. He coaxes Dai into recollecting his musical training and his service during the war. Dai is happy to retell his war stories over dinner with his band mates but he is not overly smug nor does he gloat in the attention that Norton’s camera shines on him. It really is as if the camera is not there and Dai can just speak his mind. Dai is not the only “star” of the film. His singers, Lam and Linh share the credit magnificently. Their voices are sublime and otherworldly. Throughout the film, their talent is clear. And a fabulous match for Dai’s music. Dai recognized this when he first met them and heard their interpretation of his songs. And Dai’s music is a match for their voices. No other composer working in Vietnam today could supply the women with material that is as edgy and innovative as Dai’s. They would never have settled for anything else. In one scene, Thanh Lam explains the lyrics of the song “Dream.” “It is about the craving of a woman, about her burning desire.” She adds that Dai isn’t “shy about revealing emotions,” as Linh Dung’s voice appears singing “I’m thirsty for you to hold my breasts … my darling, I long for you. Come to me, let’s burn a curtain of fire around us.”
Thanh Lam and Linh Dung are not just spectacular singers, they are performers. At one point, Linh describes how her soul detached itself from her body as she was singing, as if in a trance. On stage, they sit, they hop, they sway, they writhe, they lie down. Their voices range from high to deep, fast and slow, at times sounding like rapid speaking and screaming. Imagine Björk and PJ Harvey mixed with ca tru.
The film is one of the best documentaries I have seen on contemporary Vietnam in a long time. It says so much about the challenges of making art in Vietnam today but it also honestly captures the resilience of the Doi Moi generation who fought the war and knows how to survive, indeed to live. Artists like Dai are not afraid to take risks. Not motivated by money, only by the love of music, Dai Lam Linh is the sign that original Vietnamese culture can thrive against the odds, against the predictions of global infusion.
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