“Understanding This Feeling, How this Strange and Foreign Land Meant So Much to Me”: Cedric Cheung-Lau on The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me
Screening tomorrow night at New York’s BAM Rose Cinema is one of the real and under-screened discoveries of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me, the transfixing debut feature from Cedric Cheung-Lau, who has worked for a decade in the New York independent film scene gaffing such features as Patti Cake$, Christine and Monsters and Men. Embracing slow cinema and tacking away from the dialogue-driven penchant of much U.S. independent film, The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me is as much about landscape as story, about the possible meanings delivered through the pauses between words as scripted meaning. Nominally, it’s a tale of two very different people — a young Nepalese mountain guide, Tukten (Sanjay Lama Dong), and an older Australian hiker, Hannah (Alice Cummins) — connecting by chance while trekking in the Himalayan mountains, but Cheung-Lau refreshingly avoids the obvious story beats and contrived conflicts that often come with such films, embracing instead values of mystery and reflection. Tukten is due to leave for Dubai in a few days where he’ll become a guest worker, and Alice is clearly in the aftermath — or perhaps the dread-filled anticipatory moments — of some devastating loss or crisis. Encountering her on a mountain path as she is slumped over (stricken or sleeping?), Tukten abandons whatever his plans were to become her guide, taking her up the mountains, stopping each night in some small town or way station. Conversation is slight, and as the film goes on, its magisterial mountain wide shots captured by DP Jake Magee, punctuated by thunder’s low rumbling, become a space for the viewers’s own meditation and contemplation.
The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me is a lovely and confident first feature, and, as the above description should make clear, a film best experienced in a movie theater. Of course, the pandemic curtailed the film’s post-Sundance festival run, so tomorrow night’s is a rare screening at the BAM Rose Cinemas. The below interview was conducted before Sundance, 2020, and is published here for the first time. Appended to the end of the interview is a 2022 update, where I ask Cheung-Lau about his thoughts on his own meditative feature now that two years have passed
Filmmaker: Tell me about the genesis of the film.
Cheung-Lau: It started eight years ago when I first went to Nepal. I kind of went on this whim; it was the first time I had the means to travel, and I decided out of the blue. I just bought a ticket and was there a month later and found a strange sense of being at home there. I stayed for about six weeks, and then, when I was leaving, I thought I was probably never going be able to return to this place just because the world is huge. Less than a year later, I found myself back there, and I began thinking about what it would mean to make a film there about whatever this feeling I had was. I don’t think I even now fully understand what that is, but it was the starting point: understanding this feeling, how this strange and foreign land meant so much to me, how it came to overwhelm me in this way. The characters that we see in the film are conglomerations of a number of different people I’ve met mostly on my travels that just really interested me in terms of their life trajectories and how we ended up in the same place.
Filmmaker: And then how did you proceed to start turning these thoughts and experiences into a film?
Cheung-Lau: When I first approached [producer] Alexandra [Byer] with the script, there were only 43 images that I had shot in the mountains, and she kind of forced me to write a little bit more. But the essence of the film in a lot of ways was about going up into the mountains and finding[the story] as we traveled and as naturally as we could. You don’t know what’s going to happen, what kind of conditions you’re going to hit. So it was always designed with the idea that we would let the story unfold as we trucked up the mountain — to see what the mountain would give to us.
Filmmaker: Was it more capturing a feeling you had and transcribing it to film or about figuring out the dimensions of that feeling through the filmmaking process, if that question makes any sense?
Cheung-Lau: Yeah, I do think it’s the latter, which is to work out the dimensions of that feeling and in dialogue with the audience. I would describe it as looking at a kind of abstract painting and knowing that I feel something very deep and powerful and not knowing exactly what that is. I feel emotionally overwhelmed looking at many pieces of art, and I think I was both trying to create that feeling and [depict the encounters with] other people. But I think also the process of making the film, and trying to understand that feeling, is [about reaching] some greater truth, if you will. And over time I have looked at what the film means to me, and it means something else. What the film means to me has become this intangible mass of different things. But there’s still that core feeling of when I was first in Nepal that carries it.
Filmmaker: Narrative filmmaking is always kind of a struggle with meeting. How much explanation, how much character, motivation, how much plot? I imagine that was something that you wrestled with on this film.
Cheung-Lau: Narrative structure has been something that I’ve wrestled with quite a bit. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion that a story [has to have a] three-act structure. In some ways, [the film’s] narrative structure was inherent because we were climbing a mountain, getting to the peak, which is where our climax was. But what was interesting is that in process of making it, of walking up the mountain, different moments happened that I thought could be the climax. I think there are maybe two different moments that I could say is the climax of the film, but it’s really less about this structure and more this meandering through the space that characters inhabit, both internally as well as the external space. More about going on a journey with them and feeling the landscape than it is necessarily adhering to the narrative structure that we’ll all accustomed to
Filmmaker: Tell me about the physical experience of the production itself.
Cheung-Lau: It was really wonderful and magical. But making a film is always hard. I’ve made a film in Houston in the middle of summer and in upstate New York in the middle of winter, and it’s always hard. But at the end of the night we would always come back and would have the internet and a warm bed. In the mountains of Nepal we would have wifi, but very rarely, and no warm bed or showers. We were all sharing rooms. So it forced us into a kind of raw emotional space. And we would have to schedule [the shoot] so that we had time to walk [to the next location] as well. Walking to the next location could be, in some cases, two hours. On the first day we could drive, but after that we had 15 Nepali porters to help us carry the gear.
Filmmaker: Did you have multiple base camps, then?
Cheung-Lau: We tried to structure our days around one central location. The most difficult thing about shooting in the mountains is that there isn’t a single thing you don’t want to film. But [the time] between filming scenes gave us a lot that, in a way, on other shoots, where you’re consistently working, you don’t always get. I think it brought us all closer, undergoing this transcendent experience up there.
Filmmaker: How many days did you shoot?
Cheung-Lau: 19 days.
Filmmaker: And it’s mostly natural light, but there is some lighting, right?
Cheung-Lau: Yeah, that was the other difficulty. I wanted to shoot outside at night, but it was nearly impossible. So anything we did [at night] I did light. We, we used quasars and light mats. We could run those off of batteries and throw them up anywhere and hide them, and they’re lightweight and quite powerful.
Filmmaker: And tell me about the actors found in cast. Alice Cummins, who plays Hannah, is a well-known dancer in Australia. How did you connect with her?
Cheung-Lau: I saw her in this piece at the Hammer [Museum] a couple of years ago. We had tried going through traditional and non-traditional [casting processes], and at the tail end of that I found Alice and reached out to her. She had just been doing this cross-coutnry trek in Australia, so she had some hiking experience. She had just been kind of doing this cross, uh, cross country trek in Australia and she had some hiking experience. We started these regular meetings over Skype, talking for hours, and it felt really right — a perfect fit.
Filmmaker: How much did she need from you to sketch out and develop her character because there’s so little dialogue and obviously a lot left unsaid.
Cheung-Lau: I left it that way intentionally, even in the script. Whatever I imagined this character to be, I’m not an older woman, and whoever I would have cast, I don’t know what they would have experienced. I could write broader strokes of what I think this character might be and discuss that, but there’s rich life behind whoever I would cast, and my intention was to draw that out, to hope that the emotions would be stronger because [the actor] would draw from something a little more real to them.
So I left her a lot of room. [The discussions] were just about opening up about my life to Alice and Alice opening up to me about her life, finding what we were interested in in each other and why she was interested in the project. We actually spent a lot of time in silence as well, which is a strange thing when you’re both on Skype and silent on either side of the computer.
Filmmaker: And Sanjay Lama Dong, who plays Tukten, the guide?
Cheung-Lau: Our Nepali production manager, Prem [Tshering Sherpa] helped us find Sanjay. When I first got there, I was like, “I’m just gonna walk around in the streets, see people I’m interested in and talk to them.” And Prem was kind of like, “I don’t know if that’s such a great idea.” In terms of customs, it seems like that wasn’t the best way to go about it. So he started reaching out to a lot of people, asking a lot of his friends, and they’d send us photos and I’d meet with them. There’s not a lot of work in Nepal right now, so these people are from all walks of life. And Sanjay is who you see on the screen — he really is a guide. He helps take groups up the mountain. And he has this really beautiful soul, and this way of thinking where he kind of leans in in an intimate way. It was his first time acting, and he didn’t always know what to do — he would become self aware when the camera was pointed at him, so I allowed him to kind of stick closer to the script so that he would have something to hold on to. But even so, very quickly, he understood what we were trying to achieve. A lot of the film is about patience, and I would always say, “Take your time, wait for me to call action,” and there were times when he gave me so much time that I would think, maybe he didn’t hear me call action? So I’d whisper something like, “Okay, we can start now,” and he would still hold out a little longer before beginning. It was really remarkable.
Filmmaker: How much you see yourself in a kind of slow-cinema lineage? Obviously your editors worked on Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives together.
Cheung-Lau: I had sought out Lee [Chatametikool] based on [his work with] Apitchapong [Weerasthakul], and he was immediately excited about the film, which, honestly, I was a little bit surprised about. I don’t geek out over a lot of people, but I was really excited about meeting Lee. And then we had to push the production for a year because of funding, and he took another project that would take up a lot of his time. He suggested bringing on a second editor he trusted, Aacharee Ungsriwong. She ended up coming to New York and cutting the film with me, and we’d correspond with Lee and send shots back to him and get feedback. I can’t say what they each brought specifically other than that they brought themselves, and that to me is truly important. I think we worked well together becuse maybe I would try pushing it into a more abstract realm, and they kind of pushed the narrative just to make things a little clearer.
Filmmaker: So how does it feel screening your film now, just over two years after your Sundance premiere?
Cheung-Lau: It means a lot, especially screening here in New York, at these theaters that I’ve spent so much of my time in New York frequenting and with all my friends I have been able to screen it for. Seeing it in the theater at Sundance really affirmed my believe that it works best in a theater, in a collective experience. In the last year I was a little sad that it never had more of a life, or been in more theaters, so after contending with those feelings it’s just really exciting, and I’m grateful.
Filmmaker: Do you have a different take on your own film now then you did then?
Cheung-Lau: For a long time I was caught up with all thee different ideas I had when developing the film, and now it’s kind of become this calming, meditative experience. I can let go of all the other ideas and just experience the film, be in the space with it. I used to be focused on certain shots, certain scenes, and the meanings they had when I conceived of them. Now the film has just reduced to its simplest form, in a way.
Filmmaker: If you had to describe that simplest form, what would you say?
Cheung-Lau: I would say “meditative” and “present.” This film obviously takes inspiration from other precedents, other filmmakers with similar values. But there also aren’t that many films like this. Often when I’m watching over things, I’m thinking that there’s always a lot going on, and there is different kind of presence to [Mountains]. Granted, I know how the long the film is, and I’ve seen it so many times and am aware of all its beats, but when I watch it I can still slow down and be in that space.
Filmmaker: Are you working on other projects as a director?
Cheung-Lau: Yes, I am, but during the pandemic I was able to come to terms with not needing to rush anything. There are a lot of films out there, a lot of voices — voices that deserve to be heard. I’m very conscious of the space I’m taking, and Im trying to contend with that. The filmmaking process takes up a lot of resources, and I’m trying to think about my place in the world and how much I’m using. And, you know, my ideas need to take their time to develop. When I first got into Sundance there was excitement and a push to “make things happen,” but now I’m okay with taking the time that it needs.
I’m always at these crossroads because I make films about the natural world, or what we call the natural world, and that comes from a place of care about our environment. And it’s always feels weird for me to be making a film in those spaces. [About filmmaking] there’s something inherently, in some ways, destructive to that environment, so these are the things I’m battling with and figuring out. As much as I have some kind of voice and what to express it, it’s difficult for me to think about how much we’re also wasting in the filmmaking process.
Filmmaker: Are these political and philosophical thoughts, if you will, related to what you are thinking of doing next?
Cheung-lau: They are. The next one I’m interested in making is kind of these two stories, one about a painting that was stolen a long time ago, which deprived someone of the right to see it, and then the other half of the story is about a BIPOC dancer in the Bristolcone Pine Forest, amongst the oldest trees in the world. I think those questions of how much space we’re taking, where art is and who decides what art is and who deserves to take that space are all connected to the film. And, obviously, making a film about trees existing in one of the older ecosystems of the world is daunting, becuase I don’t know necessarily how we do that without damaging the envirornment and still show that space.