Phạm Ngọc Lân's The Unseen River is exclusively showing on MUBI in many countries in the series Brief Encounters.
In early 2019, Luang Prabang Film Festival picked out five directors from five different Southeast Asian countries that the Mekong River runs through. Making use of financial resources from local NGOs focused on protecting the Mekong, they asked each director to make a short film about this river.
I saw a different potential in learning about the impact of the river on human thinking. I opted not to limit my story to the social and ecological impacts as outlined in the documents that the film festivals and the NGOs had generously provided for us for researching material.
In the South, Mekong is a Buddhist river. All the nations and regions that the Mekong flows through are influenced, in various degrees, by Buddhist thought, be it Hinayana or Mahayana. While rivers in North Vietnam are associated with hydropower by courtesy of having the largest hydroelectric plants in South East Asia. Equally important is the way hydroelectricity intercepts and changes the flow of a river, a metaphor for time; and how, through nature, memory, and imagination, we are able to contemplate and see through to something bigger about life or even ourselves. I put together the pieces already there, and found that the narrative should take place in multiple rivers, and that the film wanted to speak about is not necessarily a river. A river, perhaps, should only be a shell or a catalyst.
I started by writing lines for actors I knew well. The first draft more closely resembled a play than a film script, as there was only dialogue without any action. Then, I replaced redundant dialogue with descriptive action while trying to retain the literary quality that was already formed in the first draft. In film as in life, the young looks toward the future, while the old looks back at the past.