THE UNSEEN RIVER a film by PHAM NGOC LÂN. 2020. Vietnam. 21 min. Memory and melancholy come together on the riverbanks of the Mekong River.

This film screened exclusively for a week and is currently not available online.

This week, we’re delighted to present a mesmerizing short about the Mekong River by the rising Vietnamese filmmaker Phạm Ngọc Lân. His feature debut, Cu Li Never Cries, is set to have its New York Premiere at this year’s edition of New Directors / New Films, presented by Film at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, which opens this April 3rd.


The Unseen River traces two couples—one young and the other middle-aged—charting the Mekong River in opposite directions. Their divergent paths coincide with the different understandings of the river held across Vietnam, as well as its couples’ opposing perspectives on time. According to Lân, “in the film, as in life, the young look toward the future, while the old look back at the past.”



“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.” PHAM NGOC LÂN


As a filmmaker with a background in architecture and urban planning, Lân’s approach to filming landscapes is as spiritual as it is concrete. His focus on hydroelectricity and the flow of currents is never demystifying; instead, it enhances the film’s magical quality by establishing new metaphorical connections between modern-day technology and ancient beliefs. Like the criss-crossing couples in the film, time and technology also collapse into one in this riverside reverie.


Phạm Ngọc Lân was born and raised in Hanoi. After studying Urban Planning at Hanoi’s University of Architecture, he turned to more personal projects such as writing, photography, and filmmaking. His short films have screened at IndieLisboa, Sundance, and the Berlinale among other international film festivals. Le Cinéma Club screened his short film Another City back in 2021, and his short Blessed Land is currently streaming in our program on the Criterion Channel. His feature debut, Cu Li Never Cries, recently won the GWFF Best First Feature Award at this year’s edition of the Berlinale.


Text written by Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer.