Netflix documentary Hope Frozen: A Quest to Live Twice chronicles how a Thai family had their two-year-old daughter cryogenically frozen after she passed away due to brain cancer. The story made international headlines, but director Pailin Wedel goes deeper, spending significant time with the girl’s scientist parents and budding-scientist teenage brother, broaching wide-ranging topics from pragmatism to spirituality.
The Gist: When he was a kid, the aerator on Sahatorn Naovaratpong’s goldfish tank stopped working overnight. The fish were floating. His mother had him put the fish on ice, allowing them to revive half of them later. In 2012, Sahatorn, who owns and operates a “laser factory” in Thailand, and his wife Nareerat became parents for the second time. Their son Matrix always wanted a sibling, and is overjoyed upon meeting his baby sister, who they called Einz — Japanese and Chinese for “love.”
Einz was two when she unexpectedly fell into a coma. She had a form of brain cancer that’s essentially a death sentence. Multiple surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy followed. About a month shy of her third birthday, Einz died. But prior to that, the family contacted a company in Arizona called Alticor, who agreed to cryogenically preserve her remains. Sahatorn believes that science will be able to reanimate her someday, and in that idea he invests all his hope. He’s interviewed on many TV news programs about the technology and why the family chose this path for Einz.
We see the family visit Alcor; they grieve and pray at the chrome canister in a laboratory — where Einz’s brain is preserved — like one might do at a loved one’s gravesite. This family is wholly devoted to science, but also devout practicers of buddhism. Sahatorn and Matrix discuss how specific dreams affect their lives. Matrix, 15 years old when the film was made, is passionate and dedicated to scientific practices, but in honor of his sister, he has his head shaved and becomes ordained as a novice Buddhist monk. Matrix then travels to the U.S. to meet a scientist who won awards for freezing and reviving a rabbit’s brain, and faces a series of revelations about the technology his family used to keep Einz’s brain viable on a cellular level.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The philosophical and ethical questions are indelibly burned into the subject matter, but as soon as Matrix and Sahatorn begin talking about dreams, you’ll feel the specter of Werner Herzog’s big-question documentaries in the room — Wedel’s tone and innate curiosity brings to mind Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World and Encounters at the End of the World.
Performance Worth Watching: Matrix is the heart of the movie — his scientific and spiritual journeys illustrate how he’s committed to understanding the nature of the human soul from both philosophical and rational perspectives.
Memorable Dialogue: “One day, if you wake up and watch this video, maybe hundreds of years from now, we want you to know we love you.” — Sahatorn records a video for Einz
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Hope Frozen shows us where grief, science, religion, hope and despair meet — and it’s a cloudy place where the seed of absolutism can find no purchase. Except maybe the assertion that science will find a way, as Sahatorn at one point extrapolates, “We may have time travel by then,” showing unerring devotion to mankind’s ability to someday achieve what we now deem almost impossible. Most compelling is the Naovaratpong family’s holistic understanding of life; Western sensibilities posit science and religion as binary opposites, but for these Thai people, it seems as if the human soul is merely waiting to be discovered and explained by the rigors of science, in a day, a week or millennia from now.
Such is the film’s ecstatic truth. Ultimately, though, it’s more intuitive than informational. Wedel all but acts on the assumption that we’ve read some of the many news stories about Einz and pondered the ethical concerns, and therefore takes the story further; it took an internet search to find the family’s surname and clarify that Einz’s body wasn’t preserved, but rather, what remained of her cancer-ravaged brain. More on Alticor would be beneficial for context, too (it’s the same company that famously cryogenically froze baseball star Ted Williams). Such details don’t seem as crucial as Wedel’s exploration of the incalculable desperation incurred by devastating loss, or the subtle rumination on the nature of what makes us human: Suffering perhaps, memory certainly, a mind and soul and intellect indelibly.
Like his parents, Matrix doesn’t exhibit signs of extreme grief — possibly due to cultural differences — but instead, an ability to look progressively forward, with hope and inquisitiveness. In the film’s most subtly powerful moment, Matrix places a greeting card on the chamber containing his sister and it reads, “You are your own unique story.” What an odd sentiment that is, until you fully consider the goal of his quest.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Wisely, Hope Frozen sidesteps every opportunity to sensationalize this strange story. You’ll wish it was more factually thorough, but its willingness to tackle big questions is its strength.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com or follow him on Twitter: @johnserba.
Stream Hope Frozen: A Quest to Live Twice on Netflix