Phạm Ngọc Lân’s latest is an extraordinary study of landscape, built around a moody and reflective story of a young couple
Phạm Ngọc Lân’s soulful The Unseen River, the Vietnamese director's most accomplished work yet after a series of promising shorts, opens with a shot of water so black in its waves that depression practically splashes onto the camera lens.
Just as it begins to feel unbearable, we cut to a bold frame: two youths by the Mekong, which drapes them like wallpaper. These are the real-life Vietnamese pop stars Naomi and Wean – two SoundCloud inflected artists whose on-off relationship keeps message boards in good gossip. Here, their characters are named “Boy” and “Girl,” but Lân doesn’t adjust their image from what you might spot in the pair’s music videos. Sat on a yellow motorbike, both tattooed to high heaven, his spiked hair resists the wind, while she grips onto him, dainty with a wispy floral shirt as they stare at a distant statue of Buddha.
That The Unseen River is an extraordinary study in landscape comes as no surprise. Lân’s background is in architecture and city planning. It is said that film is a form of architecture, focussing as it does on forms, shapes, and structures before the eye of a viewer. And indeed, a self-conscious Architecture Filmmaking mode is developing through the likes of London’s Architecture Film Festival, which pushes films that use the landscapes and surroundings to reveal qualities about character. The Unseen River is more narrative-driven than this suggests, however.
As it turns out, Boy and Girl have travelled to this monastery to fix his insomnia. In a futuristic temple lined with mirrors and fluorescent colours, he checks himself while she shirks the gaze of a monk. Meanwhile, a dog approaches an older woman sat in a forest. It wants her to follow, she gets the drift, as it scampers past a vast wall. It belongs to her ex-boyfriend, who she runs into by the water. As they reflect on their past together, the pressures of Boy and Girl, who are being pushed into marriage, appear to take on the form of two ends of a single relationship.
The mood that this slight piece conjures is remarkably effective, enveloping the viewer in reflective melancholy. Rather than histrionic melodrama, or overlong slow-cinema tropes, Lân conjures the couple’s fears as they watch a young monk fishing, his bait swinging in the sky like a pendulum. Some shots, from a distance, look like glistening geodes. As these striking images match a lilting score from the musician Nguyễn Xuân Sơn, who interpolates songs by Naomi and Wean, the Mekong becomes a mandala for the characters’ innermost feelings. Vietnamese cinema might have a new master.
The Unseen River is showing on MUBI from 29 July.Where to watch