They Didn’t Want Their 2-Year-Old to Go. So They Froze Her.
The new Netflix doc “Hope Frozen” tells the story of the Naovaratpongs, a couple who lost their 2-year-old daughter to a brain tumor—and made her the youngest person frozen ever.
The loss of a child, or a sibling, is something people never quite get over. Even after the initial heartbreak, the pain continues to resonate, in somewhat reduced form, from a locked-away part of one’s mind (and heart) that’s best accessed only at sporadic intervals. Grief is a gnawing virus, and it must eventually be contained lest it spread and consume. Unavoidable and unbearable, it’s an inherent component of life that has the potential to destroy.
Hope Frozen: A Quest to Live Twice is a story about such grief, and the unique path upon which it set a Thai family. Directed, produced and co-written by Pailin Wedel, the new Netflix documentary (premiering Sept. 15) concerns Sahatorn and Nareerat Naovaratpong, and their son Matrix, whose clan expanded with the birth of the couple’s young daughter Matheryin. Nicknamed Einz, the newborn girl was an immediate cause for merriment, her arrival so celebrated that it brought Matrix to literal tears. In home movies, we see Einz develop from a smiling infant to a boisterous and perpetually cheery 2-year-old, playing, laughing and radiating an innocent joy that’s nothing short of infectious.
The Naovaratpongs’ happiness, however, was short-lived. After suddenly falling into a coma, Einz was diagnosed with ependymoblastoma, a rare and fatal brain tumor that no one has ever survived. Though she underwent 10 surgeries, 12 rounds of chemotherapy, 20 radiation treatments, and countless stays in the ICU, Einz succumbed to her illness before she reached the age of 3. That would be the end of her tale, if not for the fact that her father—a scientist by trade—refused to let her slip away. Convinced that he could give her a chance at a new life, he began investigating cryonics, the practice of indefinitely freezing and preserving human bodies (and, sometimes, just heads) in the hope that future technological breakthroughs will allow for subjects’ resurrection, and for their lethal maladies to be cured. Even with the understanding that he’d likely never see her again (since any reawakening would probably take place long after he was dead), Sahatorn made Einz the youngest person ever (as well as the first Asian of any age) to be cryogenically frozen.
Given that cryonics isn’t exactly accepted as a legitimate procedure by the mainstream scientific community, many viewed Sahatorn and Nareerat’s plan with skepticism, if not outright condemnation, especially once the story went viral and Sahatorn was asked to defend his course of action on a variety of TV talk shows. Hope Frozen, though, cares less about what the outside world thinks about this unique decision than about the stew of motivations and justifications that drove the family to embark on their quest. That journey took them to California’s Alcore Life Extension Foundation, a tax-exempt nonprofit run by CEO Max More which charges a minimum of $200,000 to freeze an entire body, and which makes no promises about how, when or if these deceased individuals might ever be resurrected.
Faith and science collide and intermingle in Hope Frozen, as Sahatorn and Nareerat grapple with their Buddhist view of reincarnation (and critics’ worries that they’re trapping the soul of their daughter in a stasis-bound body) and their conviction in science’s capacity to solve all problems—the latter of which is, of course, its own kind of faith. Sahatorn passes that pro-science dogma down to his son Matrix, who’s soon following in his father’s footsteps and assuming his dad’s dreams. At the same time, Matrix’s attempt to seek temporary solace from his heartache by becoming an ordained monk only further blurs the boundary between rational and religious belief.
Director Wedel evokes these intertwined forces through a combination of traditional non-fiction footage of Sahatorn and Matrix in their lab (and at Alcore), Nareerat showing off Einz’s favorite white dress while standing next to her crib, and misty dusk and dawn imagery of the forest treetops and foliage surrounding their home. Plentiful clips of Einz from before she fell ill, and while stuck in a hospital, convey an empathetic impression of this upbeat little girl, who touched her family’s life so profoundly that they refuse to simply let her go. Sahatorn says that what you’re witnessing in those videos and photos are traces of Einz’s soul, and to be sure, there’s a potent sense of the spark that clearly enlivened her, and by extension, those around her.
The ultimate question posed by Hope Frozen is whether or not Sahatorn’s hope for a miracle rebirth—however distant and fanciful it could be—is a healthy means of keeping her memory alive (and of coping with unendurable tragedy), or whether it’s a mistake that denies everyone finality and, thus, a chance to move on. Sahatorn states outright, “This is who I am. I can’t let go,” likens his late daughter to a machine (“It’s like we had manufactured a defective computer. So we have to put it on hold. We believe that the computer could work again”), and opines that she might not return to the land of the living until humanity has developed interstellar travel and time machines. For all his dogged optimism, it’s hard not to see him as a man who’s chosen to figuratively freeze himself—a notion that isn’t totally erased by the late revelation that he and Nareerat subsequently had another daughter (whom they named Einz Einz).
There are no easy answers to these issues, and to its credit, Hope Frozen doesn’t try to provide them, instead allowing Sahatorn, Nareerat and Matrix to explain the complicated thought process behind their unusual response to loss. After visiting a California researcher who successfully unfroze a rabbit’s brain—a breakthrough that suggests a remedy for Einz could be decades, rather than centuries, away—Matrix learns new information that seismically affects his own feelings about Einz’s cryonic prospects. Yet regardless of that late development, Wedel’s film is an open-ended portrait of placing trust in both scientific facts and the vast, unknowable unknown—all in an effort to contend with an anguish that, no matter what anyone does, can never be fully extinguished.