A Memory of Home

Writer-director Cedric Cheung-Lau on facing grief in the wake of premiering his debut feature The Mountains are a Dream That Call to Me.

The best Saturdays in my childhood went like this. Around 4 or 5 in the afternoon, if my mother was in a good mood, she would ask what was playing. I would open the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times, check all the showtimes and read them aloud. Once we’d hit on a few suitable options, we would formulate a plan. My family of six would go to the multiplex and watch two – or even three – films, depending on how early we started. This was our church, and my lifeline. I lived for these hours when my family would sit in the dark and be at peace, eventually leaving the theater when it was almost empty and the magic of a slightly foggy and empty parking lot would ease us back into the real world.

My mother was not an easy person. To those who knew her well, her manipulation and outsized temper shadowed her positives. She was exceedingly proud, she suffered from a deep paranoia of almost all things, she was God-fearing. She could cook anyone out of the water, she was a photographer, and she loved to pose for the camera, but only if she was sure no one would ever see the photo. She had a temper. She was a feminist. She hated feminism. She loved movies. Not in the way that I’ve come to love them, but she loved them; only recently have I realized how much my love of them comes from her. She passed away on July 17, 2021, roughly a year and a half after my debut feature, The Mountains are a Dream That Call to Me, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

A young Cedric Cheung-Lau with his mother and older sisters.

We were luckier than many. Being at Sundance in 2020 meant the film had in-person screenings, an experience many first-time filmmakers missed out on once the pandemic hit. This fortune was plain to me and I’ve done my best to focus on the positive aspects over the past few years. Silently, however, I hoped that the film would find its footing again once the pandemic ended. Unfortunately, that reality never materialized, and other concerns in life rose to the forefront.

Losing my mother was mostly surreal, at first. Our contentious relationship had made me focus on her negatives for so long that to be suddenly in a world without her confused me. At some point in my life, I know I must have felt safe in the presence of my mother, and during that time, I must have learned the feeling of home. As I was pushed into the outside world with its Eurocentric viewpoints and model minority myth, my identity and self-worth slipped away – tasked with being too many things, I became nothing. At the same time, I suspect my mother was suffering from an undiagnosed mental health disorder, and as this took its toll on her, the warmth and safety of my early years became a distant dream.

When I first landed in Nepal, my body felt it before I remembered. This small country occupies an interesting space geopolitically, because it exists between two Asian superpowers and could be seen as powerfully powerless. This unique placement seemed to imbue people I met with a healthier approach to life than their Western counterparts. While they obviously had individual desires, it felt like there was less competition to run the world or to be the best, and a greater focus on the people and community around them. It seemed to me that they had an ability to be content in existing and occupying the space that they had. This land and people felt like it gave me room to be me for the first time that my mind could remember.

A still from Cedric Cheung-Lau’s short film Topography of a Hotel.

Long after that initial trip, I made a short film called Topography of a Hotel. One night after its premiere, my mother said that I didn’t make films for everybody. She said “everybody,” but what she really meant was her, and the discussion devolved into a huge fight. In our typical fashion, we discussed none of the underlying causes that had been festering in our relationship for years, just that the film I had chosen to make in no way resembled the movies we had experienced together. These words rang in my ears throughout the years, especially while finally making The Mountains are a Dream That Call to Me in Nepal. Why was I making a film in a place that I had no concrete connection to? Why was I not making something I knew more about?

All my life, my mother told the same few stories. Stories about how her father had abandoned her, how her brother and mother had come to her rescue, how her relationship with her five brothers and two sisters had been airtight, despite there being a huge gap in age between them. I knew that these stories harbored darker truths about her traumas, but she never gave me access to them. Instead, I had to use our silences to feel the contours of those thoughts and do my best to give shape to them.

Alice Cummins in Cedric Cheung-Lau’s The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me.

I like to think that sometimes in the dark of the theater, she could let some of her demons go. In the communal experience of watching a film, perhaps my sisters and I could forgive some of her transgressions as she forgave ours and those of her parents. Years after I had left home and my tastes in cinema had changed, she still found it necessary to wait for me to come back home to see any variety of films I was sure to find less than enjoyable. I found it annoying at the time, but I’m sure that spending time in the theater with me was vital to her. Sure, the action of waiting was an act of motherly love, but there was something else there, a greater significance to this ritual of being at the movies together.

I am reticent to talk about The Mountains are a Dream that Call to Me in terms of what it means and what I think happens in it. Taking nearly 10 years to make the film meant that its influences and ideas were shifting continually. As I grew as a person, so did the film. When I watch it now, through the lens of writing this piece, I see the aspects of my mother that I was interested in exploring and understanding. Far from the blockbusters that we saw together in the local multiplex, and maybe outside her understanding, but also distinctly her.

Cedric Cheung-Lau with producer Alexandra Byer (left) during the making of The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me.

By the time the film premiered, she had already been fighting her cancer for a long time. Despite this, she came out, saw the film twice, prepared a traditional Lunar New Year feast in a hotel room so we could celebrate, came to our party, and all in all was herself. This turned out to be the last time I saw her so energetic and active. By the time I was able to see her again, the chemo had worn through her and the pain she was in was much more evident. How strange it is that the last film we would ever see together in a theater would be mine.

I never found out what she thought of The Mountains are a Dream That Call to Me – whether or not she thought this one was made for her. Regardless of how she felt about it, I hope she realized how much she had shaped my filmmaking. How often I had watched her sitting still, just staring out into the emptiness around her. As much as I would have loved for her to open up and tell me more about her past and her thoughts, this was another reality that would never come to be. Instead, I could only watch her in her silence and stoicism and wonder at her interior landscape, using her subtle movements, adjustments, changes in breathing to tell me about the world she occupied in her mind.

Cedric Cheung-Lau’s family wait with excitement for the Sundance world premiere of The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me to start.

The grieving process is never what we think it will be. For me, it’s been about finding my way home. It sounds ridiculous to conflate the ideas of grieving for my mother and for the life of my film that did not come to pass, but learning how to grieve for my mother, to acknowledge the pockets of tenderness that did exist in the face of the traumas she passed on to me, taught me how to be simultaneously grateful for the success my film had, but still upset by the opportunities the pandemic took away.

As the lights begin to dim in any theater, I can’t help but get teary eyed. It’s not so much that I’m thinking of my mother every time, but almost an instinctual reaction to the remembrance that this is a safe place, as close to home as any. In all her flaws, my mother instilled this in me, a feeling of home, and I may now finally be remembering it.

Cedric Cheung-Lau’s debut feature, the Nepal-set drama The Mountains are a Dream That Call to Me, is now streaming exclusively on the Criterion Channel. He is a filmmaker, cinematographer, and lighting director based in occupied Lenapehoking (New York City, USA). He spent nearly a decade developing The Mountains are a Dream that Call to Me, which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival 2020. Prior to that, he directed a short, Topography of a Hotel, that premiered at the 2015 Slamdance Film Festival. His cinematography can be seen in the work of directors Wen Shipei, the brothers Arie and Chuko Esiri, Maggie Briggs and Federico Spiazzi whose works have shown at Cannes, Berlin, Clermont-Ferrand, Palm Springs, AFI Film Fest, and many others.