SUNDANCE INTERVIEW: ‘The Unseen River’ Director Phạm Ngọc Lân
My eyes immediately caught it: a name, with diacritics and tones used in the Vietnamese language. The occasion is the all-virtual 2021 Sundance. A member of my community at a renowned film festival? It is precisely the kind of two-and-two that will place me over the moon.
But in this case, in the 20 minutes of his latest work The Unseen River (Giòng sông không nhìn thấy, which notably uses the old-fashioned form of the word “dòng”), director-writer-producer Phạm Ngọc Lân is asking me to be closer to the earth. To be more serene, and to stir the surroundings with serenity. It seems to be the design of The Unseen River’s two stories — one about a Boy (Wean) traveling to a Buddhist temple downstream with a Girl (Naomi) to cure his insomnia, and one of a Woman (Minh Châu) meeting somewhere upstream a Man (Nguyễn Hà Phong) she used to love.
“I’m happy and a little bit surprised,” Lân said, over email, when he found out his film was chosen. “I had watched films that participated in previous Sundances and thought that my filmmaking style wouldn’t align with the festival’s palate.”
Aside from filmmaking, Lân also has a background in architecture and photography. It’s a detail that greatly assists him throughout production. “I can understand the space, the pacing, and then get to storyboarding, planning every shot and the composition in each. It greatly reduces the costs for pre-production, since for low-budget shorts such as this you can’t get the whole crew to scout locations together.”
When in proximity to other shorts in the same program, The Unseen River stands out. It allows questions to linger. Resolutions are allowed to not be clear-cut. What’s unsaid may speak louder than what is. As the stories, or sections of the river, diverge and converge, I have a couple of ideas as to what this intangible stream might be, and why it is so universal that none are left unaffected. Memories? Connection? Time? Loss, perhaps, and perhaps specifically that of the spirit brought on by an eroding environment? There is a strong case for the latter as Lân’s short is actually part of the anthology Mekong 2030, a multicultural initiative from Laos’ Luang Prabang Film Festival that uses cinema to address the impacts of global warming on this crucial waterway.
At the same time, though, Lân “doesn’t want to restrict the audience to just these interpretations.” Such an approach is also detectable in his part shorts, Blessed Land (Một Khu Đất Tốt), Another City (Thành Phố Khác) and the more documentary-based The Story of Ones (Chuyện mọi nhà).
There are only two certainties in The Unseen River, if certainty is what you’re seeking. The first is the canine cast member Gilmo (as Piebald/Con Khoang) is an excellent swimmer; the second is Lân’s decision to film the short in 4:3 helps bring this meditation closer to the viewer.
On Gilmo, Lân said its “owner and trainer used to study cinematography in film school, so there was a clear understanding of the needs on the set.” For the boxed aspect ratio, which Blessed Land also has, he explained, “I wanted to use the model visual language established in classic cinema to address timeless themes. Also, the 4:3 aspect ratio is quite suitable for filming in cramped locations such as Vietnam.”
At the moment, Lân is developing his dramatic feature Cu Li Never Cries (Cu Li Không Bao Giờ Khóc, and “cu li” here is Vietnamese for loris), which in 2017 was selected as one of the projects to receive support from the Festival de Cannes-based Cinefondation’s Atelier. If everything still follows closely to its synopsis, as seen on Lân’s official website, then the production will focus on a Vietnamese woman, who has made a life in Berlin, returning home and facing challenges — personal and familial. The character formerly works in the hydroelectric field, thus sharing a motif with The Unseen River where a hydroelectric dam is the main setting of the older couple’s storyline. Loss, love and time will also make an appearance.
“Other than that I’m also starting to write other projects,” he said. “To maintain momentum, I alternate between making shorts and making features in the interim waiting for funds for the feature.”
The film’s screenplay, which Lân co-wrote with Nghiêm Quỳnh Trang, received second place in the 2020 scriptwriting competition from the Cinema Division of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, per the local newspaper Thanh Niên in January. Lân is hopeful for what is in store, his work and the state of Vietnamese cinema. So am I, what with the technological advancements and emergence of new filmmaking voices.
But for these creatives to really shine and their efforts to have a shot, specifically in global circles, Lân said “perhaps the filmmakers and the producers in Vietnam need to set their ambitions beyond the ambitions coming from the local box-office. As in, there should be ventures toward making large-scale projects or making projects for markets that are pickier than Vietnam.”
If everything comes to pass, hopefully we will see more of Lân and his fellow Vietnamese filmmakers. I’m over the moon again — just by thinking about it.