'The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
A mood piece almost without narrative.

A young Nepali guide meets an elderly Australian woman trekking through the Himalayas in Cedric Cheung-Lau's directing debut.

Two travelers heading in opposite directions cross paths in Nepal's high Himalayas in The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me. This Sundance NEXT entry is a mood piece that dispenses with story and causal events in the name of creating an indefinable atmosphere and exalting the power of nature to influence human destiny. Making landscape the protagonist with documentary insistence, Cedric Cheung-Lau's first feature takes the viewer on a spectacular trek through Annapurna Sanctuary, alternating high-altitude forests with views of the great mountain and its awe-inspiring ranges.

But the intangible, unpersuasive story takes its toll on the audience. With little backstory or dialogue, either in Nepali or English, it's tough getting involved with protags Tukten and Hannah beyond what one can project into their meditative faces. This first feature by New York-based filmmaker Cheung-Lau is certainly evocative, but it's difficult to say of what. Its twin journeys of self-discovery and self-healing are so broad and nonspecific, they read as spiritual journeys almost by default.  

Tukten (played by real-life trekking guide Sanjaya Lama) is a good-looking young man, who, in a brief phone call, reveals his intention to emigrate to Dubai and become a guest laborer. His reasons are never specified. But whether he's looking for a change of scenery or urgently needs money, he has only five days to get to Kathmandu and leave. Yet when he sees an elderly foreign woman struggling to make a solo trek through the mountains, he changes his plans to accompany her, unbidden.

The lady is Hannah (Australian dance artist and teacher Alice Cummins), whose furtive tears and brooding expression cues that she has undergone some kind of life-changing loss. Though she tells Tukten she wants to go it alone, she adapts to his silent company when he ignores her. They exchange precious few words on their journey, and one morning Hannah just takes off on her own — as one gathers from four lines of offscreen dialogue that seem added to explain what happened to her. That's about all there is to the story, other than curious cutaways to a mysterious leaf-covered thing in the forest; it can't be a tree because every so often it moves a few feet. This clumsy-looking local spirit gets a smile, but it's hard to figure how it fits into the story.

The action is set on the trail from Nayapul (3,000 feet) to Poon Hill (over 10,000 feet) and is a fine advertisement for this popular four-day trek. The most memorable shots are Hannah crossing a hair-raising bridge hanging over the rapids, and Tukten quietly sharing a smoke with a friend above a series of astonishing gorges.

Both non-pro actors appear natural and at ease in their undeveloped parts. The absence of dialogue makes symbolism a must. When they overnight in a rustic guest house, for instance, Hannah slowly strips to the buff in a darkened room, apparently to show her vulnerability, and never mind that the next scene establishes it's 8 below zero. Later, Tukten goes swimming in what appears to be an icy river and broods. Both do a lot of staring into space as they work out their inner problems.  

A past participant at Sundance's Film Music and Sound Design Lab, Cheung-Lau opts for a striking minimum of sound effects and foley work. The exceptions are strategically spaced, unnaturally prolonged bell rings, whose Buddhist purity is a reminder of the mountain's transcendental dimension.

Production company: Rathaus Films  
Cast: Sanjaya Lama, Alice Cummins 
Director, screenwriter: Cedric Cheung-Lau
Producers: Alexandra Byer, Madeleine Askwith
Executive producers: Kevin Steen, Stephen Ah Mon, Mark Valade, Molly Valade
Director of photography: Jake Magee
Production designer: Madeline Sadowski
Editors: Aacharee Ungsriwong, Lee Chatametikool
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)
94 minutes