Chris Chan Lee’s third feature Silent River has all the materials for a great noir. From an intriguing premise about a man on a run to the hallucinogenic visuals and its eerie mood, almost every detail feels like something that came out of the mind of David Lynch. Yet, in spite of that promising potential, Silent River ends up like an afterthought, too busy building atmosphere instead of crafting a compelling narrative.
Set in a stunning American desert, the story centers on a man named Elliott (West Liang). We first meet him as he’s arriving at a motel, limping and carrying a black suitcase from the trunk of his car to the room he just rents. The man is clearly running away from something, though what it is that he runs away from is unclear. What’s not a mystery is his destination: he wants to meet and reconcile with his estranged wife Julie.
The film’s first act focus on Elliott as he settles into motel life, slowly observing him as he goes about his day––taking a bath, cleaning the wound in his body, getting some cryptic phone calls, and so on. And while not a lot happens, we get a full sense of what Elliott is like as a person: an erratic, paranoid man who might be involved in some shady business. This characteristic, however, is not all bad as Elliott proves later on in the film that it’s his paranoia that keeps him on his toes all the time and possibly becomes the thing that keeps him safe from the danger he finds himself in.
When a mysterious woman named Greta (Amy Tseng) suddenly appears and enters Elliott’s orbit, he makes sure to never take his eyes off her. Not just because she strangely looks exactly like his wife, but he somehow has a feeling that this woman is hiding something sinister. And his suspicion is not all wrong. Greta does hide something––or, to be exact, someone. The identity of the person Greta is hiding becomes the plot’s main mystery, and while it provides suspense, it’s not enough to make Silent River wholly compelling. Lee seems to want a make trippy movie about how our perception can sometimes alter our reality, as well as about the way memory and fear can take control over our mind and body, but his script falls short as it fails to give any deeper context into the topics he wants to explore in the first place.
Where Lee lacks in his writing, however, he makes up in his directing style. Playing with both the looks of a science fiction film and a dark, gritty Americana noir––imagine that one beautiful sequence from Julia Hart’s Fast Color where the sky is filled with flashes of colors then combined it with Nicolas Winding Refn’s underrated show Too Old to Die Young–– Silent River offers visuals so breathtaking that they defy the limits of the low-budget indie. The performances from the actors also save the film from fully faltering. Liang gives sensitivity underneath Elliott’s eccentric and tough personality, while Tseng’s cold, enigmatic presence as Greta fits perfectly with the tone of the film.
Lee is no doubt an inventive visual storyteller who can draw great performances from his actors. It’s too bad then that his script isn’t as strong. If only Silent River has more narrative depth and edge, it’d be a modern noir to recommend.
Silent River screened at the San Diego Asian Film Festival.