The Spool / Festivals
Sundance 2020: “The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me”

Cedric Cheung-Lau’s super slow burn overdoes itself at points, but it finds its beauty—and then finds it again.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.)

There’s something underappreciated about watching others. Not getting involved at all, but actively watching whatever they do and wherever they are. Look long enough and you might get bored. Look a bit longer, however, and your eyes might completely glaze over. Then you might drift away in one way or another, but as the images hold and the camera moves almost imperceptibly, they seem to shift. It gets lighter and darker, tighter and blurrier. Refocus your gaze and all of a sudden, it seems entirely different.

This is the bread and butter of Cedric Cheung-Lau’s film, and it’ll likely bore some people to tears. It’s hard to imagine a screening of it without a few walkouts, but it’s also hard to blame the movie for, in the first 15 minutes, declaring what presence it’ll hold for the next 70. A black screen aurally shatters at what sounds to be a massive tuning fork. It booms and it reverberates for no less than 10 seconds, and by the time it’s gone, the silence, in its endless generosity, gives way to Colin Alexander’s sound design.

Alexander, as it happens, is just as much of a director as Cheung-Lau what with his in his ability to capture and confine each area’s milieu. Those areas are across the mountains of Nepal. The closest thing The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me has to a story is that Tukten (Sanjay Lama Dong) is on his way to Dubai for work. He soon comes across an older hiker named Hannah (Alice Cummins). They have a pleasant enough interaction and he gives her one of his walking sticks, at which point they continue on their respective journeys through the Annapurna Massif. As Tukten goes on, his view of the area begins to shift.

The movie itself might stay the same, but what’s on-screen is shifting, and the audience’s perception even more so.

He, for one, has known the locale his entire life. We, on the other hand, know next to nothing. (Mount Everest looms in the background of a few shots, which gives the most recognizable iconography of the picture.) Cheung-Leu does good work at making sure we get to know the area too, forcing and inviting viewers to take in each crevasse and tree to the nth degree. It at first feels as if someone has to be in most shots, but as the movie goes on, it becomes clear this isn’t the case. It can be downright jarring when a few people are onscreen, let alone one.

It all unfolds with a realism that it could pass for a documentary, but then again, is that to say it really isn’t one? The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me is extemporaneous in how it walks with its premise. It’s too real to refer to it as a scripted (or “narrative”) film. After all, the locations are there, and they are changing with the wind, the rain, and the wildlife. The movie itself might stay the same, but what’s on-screen is shifting, and the audience’s perception even more so.

All of that said, nothing here would work as it does without Jake Magee’s meticulously framed cinematography. Cheung-Lau admittedly lets his movie go on for far too long to the point where even its most beautiful points can drag beyond its intentions. Lee Chatametikool and Aacharee Ungsriwong don’t seem to totally reel him in in the edit bay, either. At its worst, it can actually dip into tedium. Needless to say, mileage will vary for this one, but for those open to giving up almost any sense of motion as we know it, it’s often special.

The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me is playing in the NEXT section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.