PODCAST — Episode 12, recorded
Phạm Ngọc Lân in conversation with BFMAF programmer Herb Shellenberger about the film ‘The Unseen River’.→
Phạm Ngọc Lân (1986, Vietnam) is a film director with a background in urban planning and architecture, based between Hanoi and North Carolina. Lân’s debut short film The Story of Ones (2011) has been screened in numerous film festivals and art museums, including Visions du Réel (Swizterland), CPH-DOX (Denmark), New Cinema and Contemporary Art – Rencontres Internationales (Paris/Berlin) and Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. His first two short fiction films, Another City (2016) and Blessed Land (2019) both premiered at the Berlinale Shorts Competition. Lan is currently developing his first feature film Cu Li Never Cries.
Herb Shellenberger is a film programmer and writer originally from Philadelphia and based in London. He has curated screenings and film series at an international array of very excellent film festivals, cinematheques and art institutions, as well as some not so good like Tate and Tyneside Cinema which unfortunately have treated their workers very poorly. He is editor of Rep Cinema International, a newsletter/online publication focusing on repertory and archival film exhibition around the world and has recently written for the exhibition catalogue Dream Dance: The Art of Ed Emswhiller (Anthology Editions/Lightbox Film Center, 2019).
This is Herb Shellenberger, programmer for Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival. We’re really excited for 2020 New Cinema Competition to show The Unseen River by Phạm Ngọc Lân, one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers, Vietnamese Filmmaker, who has up to now made several really impressive short narrative films. I don’t know, we say that our festival is a festival of artists moving-image and new cinema and I would say, long year films, definitely fit in the category of new cinema. They’re very unique and different to me. So first of all, I’d like to welcome you to the festival. And I wanted to see if we could start off hearing a bit about your background in filmmaking or also your work in photography and video and how that might inform your short narrative films.
So I was born in 1986. At the time in Vietnam, from the beginning till I go to the University, I always think that maybe I will become an architect because it’s not so many chances in Vietnam. So after finishing as an urban planner in an architecture school, then I credibly changed to filmmaking. Because at the time then around 2008 to 2010 then the economy came down a little bit, so I just realized that a lot of the projects, the architecture project, that I worked in they just stopped. They cannot continue. So I really think that maybe I will change and I will try to make something else for myself, and not for some other people. But learning architecture in Vietnam is not so hard. We had a lot of spare time at the time. So that during the time I studied that, then I also learned photography by myself. And at the time I think, maybe photography is not enough because we cannot play so many things with that camera. So I tried to have a small cost in filmmaking as a documentary filmmaker. And after three months of learning in Hanoi DocLab in Hanoi, then I make my first short film and people call it a creative documentary. So, it’s just 11 minutes. But after making that short documentary, I was not really sure about, my way at the time. So, I come back to… How to say, one foot in architecture, and then other foot in making some commercial video, and at the time I still try to learn how to write script.
Start with the first script and did the shot. And until 2016, then I was successful to receive some funds from the Denmark Embassy in Hanoi to make my first short fiction film. It was really hard to make the short fiction film for me because I was not studied in film school so that I have to start from the beginning, how to convince people, work in my film and things. And after the film finished and some people really like it and so, was selected in the Berlinale Short competition. So I think maybe I can try something more.
And it’s interesting to hear about your study of urban planning and architecture. I hadn’t even known that before, but knowing your films that comes out. Really, quite interestingly through your work. But I wanted to ask in a different question, if you could speak a bit about how you develop the characters in your films. Because I really get a lot out of the characters and performances in your films. So how do you work with actors to convey traits of their personality? Sort of beyond just the dialogue that they deliver? How do you kind of prepare the actors to inhabit these characters?
So. In my first film there was multiple actors and actresses. In my first film later, some was immature, and some was professional. But after making my first short film, I realized that I still are very interested in theoretical mise-en-scene. So from the second short film to this film, The Unseen River is my third short fiction film, and I tried to work with a professional actress and actors in Vietnam because when I work with them, then I can ask them to repeat so many times and then try to fix something else, sometimes very details. But working with a great actor and actress sometimes they can be very flexible. They can, anytime that we need to adjust something, then they can really adapt it very well.
So do you have a quite clear idea in your mind of how you want the performance to be delivered?
Yeah, I think so. At first after I finished my script I went to the location by myself and I brought it out just only the script book, and then I came there, then I tried to change the script and based on the location itself. And then sometimes I imagine how I can film it. I tried to imagine all the scenes first. And for The Unseen River because I intended to work with an actor and actress, I know them well, so I was able to predict how they can play in the film first.
That’s great. I wanted to ask you in particular about Minh Chau, am I pronouncing her name correctly? And this is the third time you’ve worked with her and she’s really a highlight of your film. So how did you meet this actress? And could you give us a little sense of her background and what your working relationship is like?
Yes so, I intended to make a fiction film with her, but I was stuck because we still did not have enough money to start, although the script was finished. I was born in ‘86, but then during the ‘90s, then Vietnam started to open to other countries. Some culture exchange institution. So at that time some other country, they tried to open it and they showed their films in Hanoi. Something really meant to the country at that time. So when doing that time then opening something new in Vietnam still has some trouble because the Vietnamese government does not want to change too much in their country. They thought that maybe some change of the culture may lead to the politics change and they didn’t want that. So in almost every screening, there will be like secret police, this coming. And then they watch all the films that they want to see, like how the audience thinks, and then how people want to screen it.
But actually all of the screenings at the time that it happens at night, like after eight o’clock so that not so many screening places really want to come there because obviously they want to come back home to live with their family. So my mother has some friends working in that department in the police department. And because many of her friends, that’s not want to come there to watch the film so they gave my mother some tickets. At the time, my mother and my father, they bring me to the screenings. So that’s why I watched them at cinema at the time. So during 1997 or 1998, a French, Chinese director came to Vietnam and he filmed this film there. And then at the end of that year, he also screened it. He has a Vietnamese premiere screening in Hanoi, and I was also going there to buy the tickets. And at the time I was really shocked by that film.
Not because of the story or the feeling because I was very small and cannot understand all. But I still remember that I got shocked when I saw the face of a very beautiful woman and when with a very big eye compared to other Vietnamese females. Sometimes she cried and sometimes she shouted in the film. And when I grew up, I just knew that it’s me as a child. So when I changed from architecture, from architect to filmmaker, I really wanted to bring her into my film.
Well, she just has this presence that is very magnetic. And well, like I said before is for me one of the highlights of your films and she really kind of embodies the role in such a deep way. Switching back again to what you mentioned a bit before. Can you tell me a bit more about how you plan out the cinematography for your films? So the shots are all very beautifully developed and there are these quite simple camera movements, but they do a whole lot on the visual layer of the film.
No, I think for cinematography that I always like playing by myself all the scenes, but I think the way that I plan to do it is just I spend a lot of time in the location and then trying to do to stay in the place that I think the camera will stay there. And then just try to look. And I think somehow my photography background helped me a little bit on doing that. And also the architecture background was at the time then sometimes I really feel the space.
Yes, I think so. Do you storyboard, do you kind of like make portraits of shots before you actually execute?
So if you could speak a bit about the music in The Unseen River and how the music in the film might resonate with the other themes of the film, like memory, love and loss, melancholy. I want to hear about The music and The Unseen River and what that does and how you thought about using it.
So when I made The Unseen River, two of my characters in the film are also the singer. So because doing The Unseen River somehow like trying to use everything that we had. So…
So Minh and Naomi?
Yes. So they were quite famous as underground artists in Vietnam. And they have some great songs. So I also brought some of my favourites to my music composer and the composer he suggested to me to use the music in a different way and different instrument to arrange it.
So he took their song ret… What’s the title of it again, retrograde?
And then kind of rearranged it with different instruments and things like this is?
Because the way that we do traditional music in Vietnam, we do not have the music shape like in Western countries, but we played by the feelings of the artists. Actually my music composer tried to ask the artist to play by themselves and when we went to the studio to record a real one, a full one. And when I bring every record to my home, and then I try to listen to it then I only chose some of the first songs, the first edition that they play. I think that was the first time that they played together, because I still think the best, something that is not perfect that might fit to the film.
To sort of end things I want to ask you about one more actor in the film, the dog Gilmo. Can you speak a bit about the dog and what it was like to work with the dog. And the performance is amazing.
Yes, the dog is amazing. I really love that dog. So in my first script, then I was writing that the dog is a very small dog and it follows Mrs Nguyen, which is played by Minh Chau. So in the first version Minh Chau weill bring her old dog, a very small and cute dog. But when I asked my props designer to find a dog, it’s really hard to find a good one. So that I changed the script then and made it become a bigger, and more intelligent, more clever dog. And then we asked some producers, they look at some animals in other films and then they know some contacts. So one producer told me about the contact of that dog.
That’s really great. You mentioned you have a feature film that you’re trying to find funding for. I’m just wondering what, what do you have coming up in the future that we can look forward to?
Yes. So with the future then I still want to work with Minh Chau. It was a story for her, like the sixties, she came to Berlin to receive the inheritances of her belated husband, a German husband, but what she brought back to Vietnam is just only his ashes urn which she hopes that she can release into the forest.
That sounds beautiful. It’s something for us to look forward to. So I want to thank you Lân for joining us and for allowing us to screen The Unseen River in the 2020 Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival. Thank you so much.