There’s a lot to admire in Chris Chan Lee’s latest feature, Silent River. But, unfortunately, it is a film that never really feels comfortable having a plot as it is exploring its themes and story. The result is a mostly rewarding experience that gets tripped up trying to have a plot.
Silent River is Lee’s retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The film delights in risks most directors wouldn’t have chosen. The only problem is that he then tries to explain and give a reason for the risk. In these moments, Silent River throws cold water on the dream-like surrealism it has confidently and expertly established.
The film isn’t a direct retelling of the myth. Death doesn’t fall in love with anyone. Instead, Lee re-imagines it in his own way, the way tales are meant to be retold.
Lee and his cameraperson Norbert Shieh do a top-notch job of thrusting us into the strange reality of Silent River. The film’s opening shot gives us a sense of voyeurism while also making us feel we are just as much a passenger in this voyage as Elliot (West Liang). The camera sits in the back seat, Elliot slightly off the frame as he drives through the barren desert, the dirt-streaked windshield taking up most of the screen for what feels like minutes as we ride in silence.
There’s no soundtrack during this time. Lee and Shieh hold this shot, allowing us to wonder and contemplate what is about to happen, thrusting us into a mindset similar to Elliots. That of confusion and unrest.
Elliot soon arrives at a motel in the middle of nowhere. The rest of the guests seem to ignore him, or is it that they can’t see him? He’s not invisible as the staff speaks to him, as well as the Stranger he meets in the desert, the film’s version of Charon, played by Dakota Loesch. The Stranger offers to take Elliot to his destination, but he refuses. He’s waiting for his ex-wife Julie (Amy Tsang).
But when she arrives, Elliot seems to hardly recognize her. Now she’s calling herself Greta, but he swears he’s seen her before. The travel lodge, fittingly, is purgatory, but Lee resists explaining things for the most part, and Silent River is all the more engaging and enveloping for it.
Both Liang and Tsang give fleshed-out performances. Liang deftly shows us a man obliterated by grief and self-hatred. Elliot is so obsessed with making things right with Julie that he can’t see what is right in front of him.
Yet it was the mercurial way Tsang conducted herself that was particularly riveting. Tsang embodied Greta and Julia so perfectly that it was easy to tell when she was playing without help from the script. To Lee’s credit, he realizes this and lets her performance stand on its own.
For example, one scene in which she shares a bath with her husband is equally electrifying and heartbreaking. Tsang is, in many ways, the centerpiece of Silent River, as enigmatic with moments of breathtaking emotional clarity as the film itself. Conflicted yet decisive, Tsang’s Greta is a fascinating creation.
Lee embraces magical surrealism, utilizing Brian Ralston’s score to keep us unmoored. Silent River draws us in via Shieh’s camera, which frames every scene in a way that keeps us from getting comfortable. As Silent River rolls along, doorways and hallways take on an otherworldly significance as the final passage they must take to end their journey.
At the center of Silent River are a handful of mysteries. The movie works best when it doesn’t try to answer these mysteries and instead uses them to interrogate how we can confuse our love for other people with their love for us. Greta wants to rescue Patrick so much that she’s disguising herself as Julie, and Elliot wants to get back together with Julie so much that he doesn’t even care that it’s not Julie.
Julie and Elliot are trapped in purgatories of their own making. Greta’s husband Patrick (Max Faugno) cheated on her, and Elliot, it is hinted at, destroyed his relationship with Julia. Both are obsessed with how things are and cannot accept the changes that have occurred in their lives.
Lee explores all of this with a poet’s patience, but his script gets in the way. His dialogue sometimes feels clunky, while at others feels note-perfect. The scene in which Great introduces herself to Elliot at dinner is a perfect example. They refuse to answer the other’s questions while trying to find out what is happening. But sometimes, there will be moments such as when we witness a one-sided phone call that feels too artificial, too calculated.
I almost wish Silent River were a silent film. At times Lee tries to give us exposition or half-heartedly attempts to explain things that would be more interesting left unexplained. However, scenes such as Elliot gorging himself on food, cutting to him throwing up, only to pull back and reveal no food or vomit in the toilet, but a single gold coin, are moments where Silent River is running on all cylinders.
Part of the attempts in the scenes where things are explained feels so off because they sound like Lee trying to explain things to us, the audience, and not to characters talking to each other. For instance, I love how Lee introduces an android into the mix, but I can’t imagine caring about how or why it came into existence. In another film, I could see it being necessary for another film, but not in a retelling of a Greek myth.
In these scenes, the film is trying to flesh out plot points rather than following its own internal instincts that Silent River begins to drag. But then, the film begins to truly embrace the supernatural aspects of the story. Scenes such as the three Amandas (Chandra Anderson), Lee’s Cerberus, who tries to warn Greta and Elliot that their plan won’t work, work because they feel like Lee and Shieh are finally opening the door into the world they have hinted at.
Silent River is a dream-like exploration of how we can get lost living inside our own fiction rather than facing the realities around us. Thankfully, Lee leaves the end of Silent River blessedly ambiguous. Much like our own, the fates of Greta, Patrick, and Elliot are unknown.
Images courtesy of Gravitas Ventures
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