Silent River Speaks: Getting into the Present with Chris Chan Lee

Guest Post by Jacqueline (Jae) Kim

It's September 2021, year two of the Coronavirus pandemic -- and the world premiere of Silent River at Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (otherwise known as 'VC'). Among many of my friends, I haven't seen the director, Chris Chan Lee, in quite a while. After the film, I avoid the crowd and slip out but send Chris an email asking if he'd like to talk about his latest work via Zoom? I feel pretty sure the conversation will be something to document. Five months later, the film has been gaining critical momentum, earning its recent award at the Paris International Film Festival. Here's an excerpt:

Jae: Okay, so -- when I started getting involved with making my own films and eventually my own art projects, I started to see the processes and the results as self-diagnosis.

Chris Chan Lee: Mm.

Jae: How does that sit with you with regards to Silent River?

CCL: Well, you know, when I sit down to write, I never first think about the thematic content. I just think about, like telling the story, right? But I definitely notice a pattern with everything that I do that's not necessarily intentional: it's always about dealing with past and like regret and stuff like that. So that's always inherent in my work.

Jae: So that is palatable throughout this film, the embodiment and experience of longing. Is this a longing to be met or more a perpetual, and potentially metaphorical state?

CCL: I think in the way that it's expressed in the film -- that the longing cannot be met, that it's futile, you know? Like the main character must surrender to the fact that he cannot control his desire for the outcome. But I think the optimistic side of it is that even though ok, so practically he's just trying to reconnect with his estranged wife, right? But he meets Greta, and he gets involved in her story; he gets involved in her goals and interests, and by that intrigue, he's shifting into the present. So what the film is trying to say is that life actually presents -- you know -- we get upset, we get into ruts and we dwell on things in the past, or at least I do -- but that life presents opportunities for new experiences.

Jae: Almost like a portal. I was thinking that word as I was watching it.

CCL: Yeah. And you see with Greta's character played by Amy Tsang, she almost appears as if she's come from a different era with her styling and everything.

Jae: Yeah, there was a way that she was shot by your DP, Norbert Sheih, who is, I believe, Taiwanese in origin...

CCL: Exactly. Yeah.

Jae: There was a really nice, nostalgic, very light quality to the way that she was shot and that she comes off almost more like an element than a person?

Chris: Mm hm...

Jae: I'm going to stick on this line of thinking, though, about longing. I'm going to quote someone here: this is from Sri Maharaj and his famous opus I Am That. He was like a common everyday Guru in India, but just a guy, just a regular guy with a 9-5 job and he said, "Once you have seen that you are dreaming, you shall wake up." Is Elliott dreaming?

CCL: That's really interesting. I would say, you know, logically speaking, the film is supposed to show his transition from the physical world to Purgatory. But really what it's about is basically the dream state and it's about what is the color blue to you rather than what it is to me? Like, we all sort of perceive things from our very subjective experience and viewpoint and I was definitely conscious about how, you know, as people, we have dreams where we run into our parents as children or we run into friends that don't recognize us. You know, like we talk to somebody in our dreams and it's like a totally different experience than it'd be in real life.

Jae: So there is running through your films, at least what I've experienced of Yellow, Undoing and this one in particular, a really charged energy between the leading characters. Yet at the same time, there's a chasteness, you know, your films are quite chaste. They aren't carnally expressed, but there is a lot of energy. Can you talk about that? Do you want to talk about that?

CCL: Yeah, you know. I'm always... You know how I am, Jacqueline, I'm a very introverted person. So, to me, I'm always kind of experiencing the world as an observer. And for some reason, what interests me is the internal life of a story or the character or seeing things that are not explicitly expressed. You know? That doesn't really work for everybody. But for some reason, that is the arena that I am interested in.

Jae: Well, I just want to be that big, omnipotent voice out there that just says "you got the job." Because you just have mad skills, and clearly you're able to assemble people. I mean, I feel like the role of director is so interesting...

CCL: A director. You know what --

Jae: I love the stereotype of director where it's like "control freak" and the person who makes all the choices, when in reality I think what a director is, is someone who really sees the value of the whole corporal body that makes a film -- and really allows and hopes that everyone will play out their biggest strengths.

CCL: I 100% agree with that. Of course, like maybe there's a Kubrick or there's like a weirdo like David Lynch or whatever, but generally, as a director, you're just identifying talent in collaborators. That's it, you know?

Jae: That's it. And then you're letting your ego sit down so that you can hold space for all of their stuff cause there's a lot of stuff.

CCL: Yeah, you're just orchestrating a little bit, but basically you're trying to just let everybody do their best work, you know?

Jae: Exactly. And then when the moment comes, you just kind of go, "yeah" or "no" (laughs). It's not at all what I think people think a director is.

CCL: No, it's not. And I know that you're a fantastic director and you understand that process. It really is about building a team.

Jae: I'm not, that is so kind of you to say, but I don't have the experience that you have as a director.

CCL: Well, maybe not the same experiences, but I've seen your film and I know how great you are as a filmmaker. So yeah.

Jae: Thank you. So talking about film, do you see the camera lens as a particular character's POV, omnipotent, or simply the filmmaker's eye?

CCL: In this particular film, the desire from the get go was to encourage each individual viewer to engage in the movie, you know, which is obviously not for everyone...

Jae: Oh yeah, from the first shot, I get that. It's like, oh, here we go. So this camera's got something to say.

CCL: Exactly. The camera was a narrator, and the first shot, the first scene of the movie kind of tells everybody, okay, this is this kind of the movie, like it or not, this is what we're doing. (laughs) We had to make a statement from the beginning so that people knew what they were getting into.

Jae: I think what surprised me the most and delighted me in watching this film was like, wow, Chris is coming out. Like, he's coming out of the subtler spaces. And I think that that's probably related to your collaboration with West (Liang), too, because he's a very visceral performer. I mean, I knew from the moment when he's unpacking -- when he opens the suitcase and he goes lateral on the bed and falls into the suitcase -- I was like, fuck yeah, like, great. So that's what this film's going to be.

CCL: Right? Exactly. A lot of that very specific blocking he came up with, you know.

Jae: OK, so I was going to ask you about that.

CCL: Well, we would rehearse and I would tell him, well, I need you to go there, and you should put this down over here. I need you to open this over here. But also, you want to give them that liberty to make all the specific movements and choices, so...

Jae: I think if I'm ever to direct a feature, I might want to involve my actors in seeing framing, understanding framing. Because in a way, it's letting them know what stage are you on?

CCL: Exactly. And you know, there are actors like George Clooney and Bruce Willis that did hundreds of hours of TV shows. And whether they're your favorite actors or not, they know how the frame works. They know how to play to the camera, you know, and that's a huge part of delivering a performance. So I totally agree with you, to have the knowledge of how they're visually translating to the viewer is like a really big, big thing.

Jae: I have a couple more questions about the filmmaking aspect. Space is almost a character in this film. I believe you should garner a special award for transforming the utilitarian space of a budget motel room into a very specific and evocative universe. I'm curious - if you had a dream budget, like a no-limit budget, would you like to direct on built sets? Would you like to have sets built for you?

CCL: Absolutely. I mean, I have an idea for a North Korean cold war movie, you know, that I would love to do that would have to be kind of lavish to execute. But this film, because of the realities of it, the privilege that we had was we had access to this hotel. So even though I was still working on the script, a year before we shot the film we went on a tech scout to the hotel and they told us that we could choose any rooms that we wanted and do whatever we wanted. And I was able to see the connecting door. And the geography from one room to the next. And doing that, doing that tech scout while we were still in the writing process allowed me to organically infuse those elements into the script.

Jae: That's awesome. I think it's not just more easy, but more pleasurable to write about (a space) if you already know the space in your body. And finally, well I wanted to talk about color, but music, I wrote this. "It's bold and risking being too much all the time, but somehow it defined a space for us, a vocabulary. In the first third of the film, I thought of Japanese cinema in the era of (Teshigahara's) Woman In The Dunes, to be specific. It became a character in the film that wasn't going to leave. It gave the space weight. It filled Elliot's emptiness while emphasizing it at the same time. Was this intended with the music or was it brought in largely through the composer's influence?

CCL: Brian Ralston, our composer, brought so much to the film. He even did a lot of counterpoint that wasn't necessarily following exactly what was happening, you know, in the proceedings and -- and he helped to illustrate the kind of supernatural aspect of the scenario -- at the Purgatory World. So it was a huge. It was kind of like another character. Absolutely.

Jae: It was bold.

Chris: And he was also extremely strategic because, you know, we're a low budget movie, right? So we can't hire an orchestra and all that stuff. But he knew he was able to enlist a few performers to play live instrumentation, you know, like a cello and viola and stuff, to add that human touch so it did not feel like an electronic score.

Jae: What do you miss from cinema these days?

CCL: That's a good question. I don't know if it's because I'm older and I don't go out that much or if, in fact, there really was a change over the years? But I recall like when I was younger, there was a lot of excitement about arthouse and independent cinema, you know? And it's kind of like, I can't really tolerate the majority of like these superhero event films and stuff. And I admire them, certainly at a certain level, but I don't feel like there's like the strong cultural appreciation in a more kind of expansive way of film anymore, you know? And I think that's that's part of like our attention spans being so divided now with the whole digital era -- like we're being pulled in so many directions. But there was something about years ago where a lot of people could share the excitement for the same thing, and that seems to be gone now. So.

Jae: I feel that way when I talk to people of our parents' generation. Like just people who are used to doing everything for themselves, and I feel like when they pass on it's going to pass with them. Like how many people want a real experience anymore? I'm really glad you invited me to see the film because I think seeing it in that big theater is special and important.

CCL: I'm so glad. I mean, that's -- for better or for worse -- that's the way it's meant to be seen, and I am really grateful that you were able to come.

Jae: I'm glad I could come.

Chris Chan Lee is a Korean-American filmmaker based in Los Angeles, CA. He graduated from the USC School of Cinematic Arts in the mid-90s, and has spent his career of over 25 years developing and producing Asian-American content. His debut feature film as writer/director was Yellow (1997), a coming of age movie about a group of teens in Los Angeles during their fateful graduation night. The film features the first performances of John Cho and Jason Tobin, and re-envisioned the American teen comedy with an ensemble of Asian-Americans in the lead roles. Yellow world premiered at the 1997 CAAMFest Film Festival (then called NAATA) and won the Gold Carp 1st Place Audience Award for Best Feature Film and the Golden Reel Award for Best Independent Feature Film. Yellow had a successful national theatrical release including a 5-week run in Southern California across 9 screens. The film is considered a milestone in Asian American filmmaking. www.silentrivermovie.com

Jacqueline (Jae) Kim is a multi-disciplinary artist specializing in sculpture and composition. Her work is centered in social practice - applying artistry to capture moments, translate them and impact where things are headed. Prior to this, she was known for her presence in film and theatre, from her award-winning performance in Sondheim/LaPine's operetta, Passion (LA Drama Critics), to co-writing/producing and acting in the sci-fi feature, Advantageous. She has dedicated several of her works, including her band's first album, This I Heard: Songs and Melodies, part I - to her teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, who passed away peacefully this past January. This spring will see the launch of Jae's first musical score for a full length work, the audiobook Seven Year Summer, and she is finishing up a choral commission for the Voices of Hope prison choirs in Shakopee and Stillwater, MN. www.jacquelinekim.com