When the Past Is Not Even Past After the Snowmelt by LO Yi-Shan
2024-05-05 11:00:00

A trip to the mountains of Nepal ends in a terrible accident that costs the life of one of the travelers. From this unfortunate event, the director recreates the relationship of friendship and love between three friends and their lives that will be changed forever. A sensitive documentary essay about the forms of mourning.

The film is based on a real and tragic event, closely related to your life. At what moment did you take the decision to transform this story into a documentary film?

It’s a very long process for me to transform the story into a documentary. The mountain accident in March and April of 2017 impacted me profoundly. After losing contact with Chun and Yueh for over a month, I prepared myself for their possible death and that’s when the initial urge to “do something for them” emerged within me. Soon after, as depicted in the film’s opening, I received news that Yueh survived but Chun did not. I visited Yueh in the hospital upon his return to Taiwan. Although his body was fragile, he still possessed a certain kind of confidence and optimism. When Yueh shared Chun’s final wish with me about how the one who survives must share their story, it sparked a commitment within us to honor Chun’s words, ultimately leading to the decision to create a documentary. Therefore, this project originated from a close collaboration between Yueh and myself, striving to penetrate Chun’s life and his spirit. This collaborative process served as a necessary form of mourning for both of us. However, as depicted in the film, the relationship between Yueh and me evolved as time progressed. As he withdrew from the filming process, I found myself extremely lost. Over a year after our split, I stopped filming in order to rethink my motivation for continuing with the film: if I were to “tell this story,” what kind of story would it be and whose story would it be?

I came to understand that the reason why I wished to make this film wasn’t only to honor Chun’s last wish or to be at Yueh’s side, but to confront my own trauma stemming from their mountain accident. My trauma wasn’t only caused by a close friend of mine passing away, it was because I was denied the chance to be part of their journey. The moment I learned of the accident’s outcome, I couldn’t help but long to have been there with them, experiencing what they went through firsthand. This seemingly naive desire was deeply rooted in my fear of exclusion from both their journey and Chun’s life. This realization led me to understand that by telling Chun and Yueh’s story, I was telling my own personal story.

Once the decision was made, how did you start working, putting the project together?

At first, following the mountain accident in 2017, I didn’t think too much about turning this into a documentary. I knew nothing about practical filmmaking and didn’t even know how to operate a camera. So, during this period, I learned about filmmaking through the process of making this project. After one and a half years of intense filming, I edited a 30-minute version in mid-2018. With a clearer idea of the type of film I wanted to create, I began raising funds and recruiting other partners to join the project in 2019. The following year, I had a plan to film in Nepal, but I had to postpone the plan due to the pandemic. This was also the time that Yueh and I slowly drifted apart. I felt lost because of our estrangement and took a break from the filming to complete my undergraduate degree. During the pandemic, I spent a lot of time contemplating, organizing the footage, and writing a dossier on the film. In 2021, I filmed scenes in Taiwan according to the dossier. In 2022, I traveled to Nepal to shoot the final part of the film. I started to edit the film from mid-2022 until the end of September 2023.

Yueh is one of the protagonists of the story, the survivor. How did you convince him to participate?

Yueh and I collaboratively started this documentary idea. Our close relationship originated from the fact that we were both significant others of Chun and we had similar ideas in fulfilling Chun’s last wish, although the ways we approached this matter were not entirely the same. About half a year after the accident, Yueh began to have other focuses, being part of several expeditions and research projects in Taiwanese cloud forests. I became the main person who continued documenting our lives. Yueh was willing to be filmed but gave less and less input into the creative process. I always shared my ideas with him, the footage I filmed, and the trailer I edited for applying for funding. One year after the mountain accident, Yueh started to show unwillingness to be filmed, although he did not directly mention it. At that time, I was not mature enough to fully recognize his state of mind. This continued for about half a year and finally led to us having an honest discussion about the film and our relationship, which I included in the middle of the film’s narrative.

We slowly drifted apart. But I still occasionally shared with him my filming plans, such as returning to Nepal and the cave. After I had a more complete rough cut, I told him about my idea of how the film would be, and how I would put him in the film. We provided him with the rough cut and accompanying text files, which included a detailed editing script, proposal, promotion or screening plan, and subtitles for the entire film. We also invited his current partner and his family members to watch the film, enabling him to understand his portrayal and to have a glimpse of the content of the film. Upon realizing that the film primarily focused on my personal journey of confronting trauma rather than solely on him and the accident, he felt relieved and became more comfortable with his presence in the film.

I suppose that as a director you had some needs that, as the protagonist of the story, could cause you to question yourself. For example, show the video footage of when Chun and Yueh were found on the mountain. Were you afraid or had some prejudices about telling or showing certain things?

Yes, of course. Showing footage of the accident, especially the one where the rescue team found them, was a tough choice. The moment I received the rescue footage also appeared in the film. At that time, I was watching it with Yueh before we knew what we were going to see. As depicted in the movie, we didn’t finish watching it because Yueh knew very well what would come next and he did not wish to continue. I finished watching it alone later on, which was a traumatic experience for me as it was the first time I directly saw the documented images of the harrowing accident, and the emotional weight of the footage was overwhelming.

Facing the rescue footage itself was challenging. As a director, I also had to think thoroughly and decide why, how, and where to put the footage in the film. For me, the footage of them being found in the cave was unavoidable since it was the beginning of everything. It was indeed a “core image” of the whole film, and everything that happened afterward was linked to it. During the editing process, one of the most challenging decisions we had to make was where to place this core image. We initially considered placing this footage at the beginning of the film to establish a clear premise of what happened to them in Nepal. We also tried to put it in the ending scene, juxtaposing it with my return to the cave. However, we decided that neither of these approaches would work. The former would create an accident-oriented and investigative narrative that would contradict the personal storytelling aspect of the film. On the other hand, the latter would unfairly exploit Chun and Yueh’s experience. Therefore, we opted for a different approach of revealing the accident by juxtaposing the rescue footage, news reports, and present events, in a fragmented yet coherent manner. This way of storytelling was closer to my real experience back then.

From the beginning until the film was finished, how long did the process take? Was it painful for you to revisit those images and memories or did they help you in some way as a form of mourning?

If I count the production period, starting from right after the accident in 2017, it took me seven years in total to finish it. It was, of course, painful and uncomfortable to revisit the past and face a huge amount of footage. This was particularly challenging because I had to transform messy, trivial, and seemingly meaningless memories and footage into a cohesive narrative story. Throughout this transforming process, the most difficult thing for me was to establish my mentality and position as a filmmaker. I often asked myself, “Am I ready to tell this personal story?” I only found the reason why I needed to tell this story after a considerable period of reflection. Then, I focused on establishing a proper “distance” between the story and my own experience, as well as between myself as a filmmaker and as a character in the narrative. I hope that by creating this kind of distance, the film could allow the audience to actively participate in the narrative and will enable them to resonate with this personal story. Of course, working with my editor and producers was crucial in helping me maintain a sense of emotional distance.

In addition to maintaining mental distance, I found it challenging to avoid self-alienation and maintain emotional sensitivity. The production period of the film was quite long, making it easy to become tired and emotionally dulled. For me, this process of establishing a mindset, finding distance, and maintaining emotional sensitivity was not only a process of creating and filming but also a process of mourning. On this level, revisiting the pain caused by memories is actually a necessary way to mourn.

Would you have made the film without Yueh’s participation? I also wonder what he would have said if he had seen it.

No. During the editing process, my editor, producers, and I tried several ways of storytelling, not to mention Yueh in the film, but we came to realize that it was impossible to avoid Yueh in the narrative. Not only because he was indeed the one who went through everything with Chun in the cave and had to live on as the sole survivor, but also because I couldn’t and wouldn’t have been able to make this film in the first place without Yueh. However, we also came to realize that the Yueh I filmed was not truly himself, but rather a projection of how I wanted to confront my trauma from the mountain accident. Therefore, the portrayal of Yueh naturally follows the chronological narrative of my journey of coping with my trauma: receiving the news of the accident, following Yueh right after he came back to Taiwan, then parting with him, and going to Nepal alone.

I’d like to discuss another aspect of the difference between Yueh and myself, and why this disparity created an inevitable chasm within our relationship. Yueh’s trauma originated from him being in the cave and experiencing all that with Chun first-hand, while mine stemmed from me being absent and excluded from what they had been through. This profound difference between presence and absence led to irreversible changes in our relationship. For him, since he had been in the cave, going back to Nepal was a kind of mourning and indulgence in the past, as he said in the interview in the film. In contrast, I felt the need to physically immerse myself in the site of the accident to confront and reconcile with the trauma. My struggle with trauma has also affected people like Yueh, who were dealing with it in their own way. Capturing these shifts and differences in the film is a real and important aspect of the narrative. As for the last question, Yueh hasn’t seen the film and currently has no desire to do so.

Cinema is present in the film, through the mention of The Big Blue (1988) by Luc Besson, but we can also see, I guess it’s in your office, posters of films by Wim Wenders and Krzysztof Kieślowski. Also, literature is present. The title of Susan Sontag’s book, Regarding the Pain of Others is mentioned and A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold is very important in the plot. Tell us a little about these influences, if they are, and particularly about Aldo Leopold’s book.

Literature, films, and the mountain trips we went on with Yueh allowed Chun and me to escape from the suffocating pressure of school. Among the many works we loved, The Big Blue was particularly important for us during the time when we had just started to explore the mountains. Just as the protagonist Jacques said, “You have to find a good reason to come back up (from the bottom of the sea)... and I have a hard time finding one.” For us, it was also hard to find a good reason to come back down from the mountains. Yet, the film romanticizes death in the wilderness, and at that time, we found ourselves similarly enchanted. However, none of us truly understood what it would mean to die in the mountains.

Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac profoundly influenced Chun and me. I think for us, The Big Blue was a starting point for experiencing the wilderness in an idealistic and naive way, while A Sand County Almanac provided us with a more nuanced and realistic portrayal of the cruelty and harshness of the mountains. Humans have always explored how to approach these majestic formations. Despite the emotions we project onto the mountains, they remain indifferent entities made of raw materials, unmoved by our desires. Aldo Leopold portrayed this eternal paradox and how the cruel and heartless mountains are “the salvation of the world.” Just as Chun found catharsis through understanding and accepting the inherent cruelty of the mountains when he was trapped in the cave. This is also why I felt compelled to confront the mountains and revisit the caves, confronting trauma in the process. The reconciliation of trauma is not the transcendence of the experience of grief. It is the actual facing of the mountain, the realization of the cruelty of the mountain, and of death itself.

Regarding the posters, Krzysztof Kieślowski was my entrance into the world of cinema. His TV series Dekalog (1989-1990), especially episodes 5 and 6, inspired me when I was under the pressure of a college entry exam. I have seen many classic films since then, including those of Wim Wenders. The concept he wrote in his book Once: Pictures and Stories changed my way of seeing, “Taking pictures is an act in two directions: forwards and backwards.” I also thought of this a lot while making After the Snowmelt. As for Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others is no doubt a classic essay on photography, focusing on war images and the power operating in and through images.

In the movie, we hear the phrase “The past is in the past.” Do you think so?

No, otherwise, this film wouldn’t exist. Or we can say, all films and other forms of art wouldn’t exist if “the past is in the past.” We are beings surrounded by both the past and the present and make future decisions based on them. I think our existence itself contradicts this phrase, not to mention, that art is an important means for us to express ourselves, communicate with others, and perpetuate the memories of the deceased. Through storytelling, the living inherits from the dead. At least, I believe so.

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