Sundance Review: ‘The Mountains are a Dream that Call to Me’ is zen, but perhaps too zen
Someone in the front row was snoring. Forty minutes into the film, the sound of heavy exhales from the audience slowly but surely grew to a crescendo a few scenes later. At first, it was hard to tell whether or not the sound was coming from the background of the film (or if the film itself had employed some innovative 4D audio tricks), but when the snores started to carry over into multiple scenes it became apparent that this was not part of the film’s plan. Or was it?
Before we get deeper into Cedric Cheung-Lau’s slow-moving The Mountains are a Dream That Call to Me, it might be worth mentioning that it’s a film about, essentially, whatever you make of it (or, conversely, nothing at all). The story follows Hannah (Alice Cummins), an older Australian woman who attempts to climb the Annapurna Mountains by herself. Along the way, she meets a local guide, Tukten (Sanjay Lama Dong), who decides to help her out despite heading in the opposite direction to accept a job in Dubai. Together, the two team up to climb the mountains… and that’s the extent of how far the plot will take you. Instead, the film sells its viewers a dreamy feeling rather than a story.
Perhaps that’s why The Mountains are a Dream That Call to Me is a film that will immediately lose anyone looking for anything remotely resembling a working narrative–it’s a film that plays by the rules of slow cinema instead of traditional film norms. Here, there’s no shortage of awe-inspiring wide shots of the beautiful Annapurna Mountains and long takes. Those mountains become a character in themselves, making whatever’s going on with Hannah and Tukten forgettable in comparison. In fact, Cheung-Lau seems to hint at the insignificance of the characters by filling every conversation in the film with empty platitudes. For example, in one of the film’s (only) dialogue sequences, Tukten talks to another friendly tour guide about the tour guide’s sister, which has nothing to do with the rest of the story at all. It’s a conversation that’s true to life, maybe, but ultimately unnecessary. In another extended sequence, the camera focuses in on Hannah slowly taking off her clothes in front of a melancholy blue curtain. Artistically, the scene is a beautiful study of the movement of light by showing Hannah’s graceful form, but it once again raises the question of “why?”. Later on, one of the characters even inconclusively disappears, never to be heard from again. The characters are negligible and unfortunately not given much to do–except stare off blankly into space most of the time.
So the argument can then be made that the real point of Cheung-Lau’s film is to show the breathtaking beauty of nature. The Annapurna mountains are always there, acting as a silent giant that watches situations play out even when certain main characters mysteriously disappear. Manifesting itself as a leaf-covered creature that Cheung-Lau cuts to on occasion, the spirit of the majestic mountains lives on despite human interference.
Visually beautiful yet contextually empty–The Mountains are a Dream That Call to Me is a film meant to wash over you like a relaxing wave instead of making you think. Sleeping, waking, and dreaming are all central motifs of the film, so it’s not an idea that is too far-fetched. Think of the film as a spiritual successor to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, except with even less of a central message, less meaningful dialogue and even more unimportant characters.
When the person in the front row finally woke up a few scenes later, they didn’t miss much. In fact, I would argue that they were the real winners of the screening–fully embracing the circumstances playing out in front of them on-screen and applying it to their own situation straight away. Given the film’s meditative pacing, that’s the best reaction one can ask for.