People keep saying cinema is dying. Tell that to the 18 young directors at the 2015 Filmmakers Academy at the recently wrapped Locarno Film Festival. The Academy is providing fertile soil for a new generation of serious filmmakers setting sail into the unknown world of 21st century cinema.
One of those directors is Vietnamese-born and Singapore-based filmmaker Linh Duong. Bleakly enigmatic and dream-like, her works exist in the space between art and film. Though she has only made a handful of short films, a pattern has already been established: mythical, abstract and emotive stories that push the limits of narrative.
Duong spoke with Indiewire in Locarno about collaborating with musicians, serving storytelling through song and the process of creating soundscapes.
Though cinema is undoubtedly an audio-visual genre, music can be one of the most daunting aspects for filmmakers more confident with producing moving images. Putting aside the legalities and logistics of clearing rights for music, sourcing royalty-free tunes, what about the bigger, artistic question of how to think through sound’s place in film?
Music seems intrinsic to your films. At what point do you begin to think about the sound?
I have an idea of the soundscape before I begin the film. It affects what I shoot. There was only one film that I made in which the sound was not planned beforehand. It was a collaboration, and the film was “Loop.” The sound design was mine, but the music in the climax of the film was made as part of an exhibition in Singapore where 18 filmmakers were commissioned to make 18 films. We were doing the sound design and the editing in a theater, and there was a stage with musicians playing live, and the music was the band responding live to the films on set. It was their spontaneous reactions. They watched it once, then performed. It was a completely different experience. I’d never met them before, but it worked. Generally, during sound design, the relationship is very close between the filmmaker and the composer, but this was out of my control completely.
You’ve produced a lot of experimental films that sit somewhere between art and cinema. How does music and sound function in that experimental film space?
My films are not about narrative. They’re about emotion.
Yes, and in that context, the music serves a slightly different purpose.
That’s right. The films I make represent a state of mind. To me, the most important point is that, as a viewer, you might not understand the plot, but you must understand the emotion. I want to build the character’s world, and a lot of my films are dark. So how to make the audience live in that world, believe that world? Sound is easily half of the film. If you have a shot that’s not as nice, it’s forgivable. If you have a sound that doesn’t match, even one second’s worth, people will be drawn out of that particular moment and emotion. So I spend more time on sound design than editing, actually.
Have you ever worked directly with a composer to create new work? What was that experience like? Or do you prefer selecting pre-existing songs?
I design the sound and music for most of my films from free music online. There’s this guy called Kevin Mcleod, he’s uploaded a lot of music for free, so I search and search and compile until a soundscape forms.
I call it sound design rather than music, because sound and sound effects can be even better than music. I avoid having a full piece of music over my film, I just layer sounds into a soundscape. I don’t have a full track.
I want to avoid using music to substitute for emotion. It’s lazy. When I was younger, I did that once: in my first film ever, I made a film about a daughter who realizes her dad is cheating on her mother. And at that point, when the daughter is staring at the father with his lover, I put on melodramatic music. And guess what? The audience laughed. It was like, this is cheap. I put on this music to try to save the film. It’s easy to say, “maybe this shot isn’t working, I’ll put in some music to cover it up.” That shouldn’t be the way. It’s dishonest, it’s manipulating the audience. It was the film that was the real problem, not the music. So as a filmmaker, the basic emotion should be in my images and the music should enhance that and not try to save the film. We watch films as a whole, we don’t isolate sound and image.
In your film “Au O,” much of the music comes from within the world of the film. How does the song the daughter sings serve the storytelling?
It’s a lullaby rather than a full piece of music, and it’s about dignity. In Vietnamese and Asian culture, the face and dignity and presenting yourself – appearing happy and perfect – is very important. I was taught to “keep my face.” The character singing the lullaby is in love with a married man, even though she knows its wrong. She wants the man to divorce his wife, and she wants to be the mother of his son. So she is singing this lullaby to the son of the man she loves.
That is incredibly sad! What else has been on your mind in relation to your filmmaking lately?
I enjoy doing experimental work, but I’m moving more toward narrative; I want the audience to understand what I’m trying to say. I believe genre films can be art-house films. That’s the kind of film I want to make. Something entertaining and something that has beauty – cinematic beauty.
Watch the trailer for “Au O” below:
This article is part of a series written by members of the 2015 Locarno Critics Academy, organized by Indiewire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Locarno Film Festival.
READ MORE: The 2015 Indiewire Locarno Bible: Every Review, Interview and News Item Posted During the Festival