Hope Frozen was the first film I watched at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival (LFF). The festival is over and yet not a day goes by when I don’t think about Pailin Wedel’s powerful and moving documentary.
I knew very little going in… I thought that it was about a family’s grief following the death of their child. Having watched the film, I am left wondering how I would now describe Hope Frozen.
That is not to suggest that this description is inaccurate. Wedel’s documentary follows a family from Bangkok who have been left devastated by the death of their two year old daughter - who they called Einz (which means love in Japanese and Chinese).
However, like the very best documentaries, Hope Frozen tells both an intimate and a universal story. It is a film about one family’s experience with unbearable loss and it also explores wider themes of science and religion, life and death.
In the opening scenes of Hope Frozen, we see a tank of goldfish and hear a story about how, when our narrator (who we later discover is Sahatorn, Einz’s father) was a child, the oxygen pump in his aquarium broke overnight.
His mother announced that there would be “no school today”. They scooped out the floating fish and put them in an ice bath - lowering their temperature, slowing the death process. They found that they could revive them later - more than 50 percent survived.
We don’t have to wait long to understand the significance of this story.
First, however, we see home footage of the life of a gorgeous baby girl - from birth until she is about two years old. It is clear that she is very much loved. Heartbreakingly, this montage ends with an IV and an empty crib.
Sahatorn, we discover, is a Thai-Buddist and a laser scientist. Via his narration, we are introduced to the concept of deathlessness and we find out that, after she died, Einz was cryo-preserved. Her father believes that when she wakes up she will be healed and live in a world without disease.
Before we have time to adjust to this startling development, we are introduced to Matrix, Einz’s 15 year old brother. How has this impacted his life? What does he believe? Matrix’s story lies at the heart of Hope Frozen. He goes on a fascinating and deeply emotional journey and he takes us with him.
While his father possesses an unwavering belief that Einz will be brought back to life, Matrix needs more evidence. He wants answers for his sister - answers that he believes science, and later on religion, will provide. Such is his love for Einz, that he is willing to devote his life to even the slimmest of chances that she will get the opportunity to live again.
Hope Frozen inspires tremendous empathy for Einz’s family. Nonetheless, cyro-preservation feels problematic and many scenes are heartbreaking to watch. Wedel takes us to the Alcor Cryonics Facility in Arizona where Einz is being kept. As fascinated as I was with cryonics, I found the practical details of cryo-preservation quite disturbing - particularly as Matrix was there with his father to witness this process.
Meanwhile, watching Einz’s mother Nareerat’s struggle with such raw pain and loss is devastating. It is through her that we understand the deep emotional challenges that the family has to endure - both publicly and privately.
Despites this, Sahatorn’s belief in cryonics remains compelling. Even in the face of devastating research, he is extraordinarily convincing. It may sound ridiculous now, but as I watched I actually thought that the film might reveal some astonishing, life altering breakthrough. Thanks to Sahatorn’s conviction and Pailin Wedel’s assured storytelling, this suddenly seemed within our reach.
That Hope Frozen made me feel the possibility of deathlessness was something of a shock. This story made me question everything I thought I knew about death and mourning. Should we accept the grieving process or demand that science find a new answer?
Is it healthy for Sahatorn to encourage his wife and son to “keep” Einz and think of her as still being alive? Will this prolong their pain and suffering? Or is his optimism the perfect way to honour Einz? Will future generations thank him for his belief?
There are no easy answers. And yet the questions continue to haunt me.
Pailin Wedel experienced something similar when she first discovered this incredible story. “I met the family when I was accompanying my husband and associate producer, Patrick Winn, to help him with translation for a news story about them,” she recalls. “What was supposed to be a 20-minute interview turned into hours of philosophical discussion. That conversation stayed with me for days and propelled me to make the film which took almost four years.”
Einz was the youngest person in the world to be cryo-preserved. “The documentary reveals a family in mourning, seeking answers not only from Buddhism but from their profound faith in science,” says Wedel. “I believe it is a glimpse into how technology could change the way we grieve in the 21st century.”
Wedel would like Hope Frozen to inspire people to think about how technology is blurring the very meaning of life and death. “I’m not in any way saying that this particular technique — cryo-preservation — will bring people back to life,” she says. “But tech giants are spending a lot of money on radical life extension. Defeating death could be humanity’s biggest endeavour in the 21st century. And it may totally fail. But it’s being attempted. How will humans change during this pursuit? I want viewers to personally reflect on this.”
Meanwhile, Wedel had other aspirations for Hope Frozen. “I want people abroad to realise that there are different types of stories coming from Thailand,” she explains. “Stories that come out of this region often focus on tourism, oppressive regimes or human rights abuses.
“While those stories are important, I think they tend to make viewers think about how different Thailand is to their country. I want people to see stories where we are not just victims. I hope the very human themes in this film will help viewers realise how similar we are – how we all grapple with existentialism.”
Incredibly, Hope Frozen is Palin Wedel’s first feature-length documentary.
She has made a visually stunning, moving and thought-provoking film. A film that tells an intimate story about one family’s experience of grief and loss and also encourages us to reassess our thoughts on life and death.
I cannot wait to see what Wedel does next… meanwhile, Hope Frozen will stay with me for a long, long time.