Seven years ago, my friend Chloé and I went to China in search of a monk.
It all began shortly after my first film didn’t do as well as I’d hoped. I was coming out of a 10-year relationship, hadn’t cohered ideas for my next project, and felt I needed inspiration. Since I’m originally from Beijing, I decided to go back to China and do a solo trip around Sichuan. Two weeks before I was supposed to leave, my Parisian friend Chloé called me out of the blue, and when I mentioned my trip she was like, “Oh, my God, I just had a dream where I went to China and met a monk in Sichuan, and he gave me all this insight!” Chloé is a photographer and filmmaker who was also having all these questions about her next steps in life, so she took all this as a sign and booked a ticket to come with me.
We flew to Hong Kong, then to Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu, where we saw an old Chinese opera and ate the famously spicy hot pots—which I’m pretty sure were too hot for Chloé, but she said, “No, this is what I want. I want the authentic experience.” The next morning, we set out to find a pristine, beautiful, authentic Chinese vista for a more spiritual experience.
Most of these places are restricted and can only be visited with a guide, but I did learn about one place that was supposed to be especially beautiful and remote, although it did require a bus trip. I probably missed some details with my not-great Chinese, because this turned out to be a four- or five-hour ride, packed with people, with bus windows you couldn’t open. Chloé was yelling, “This isn’t inspiring! This isn’t what I came for!” And I was yelling back, “Look, I’m being your translator, your tour guide—I’m doing the best I can!” When we finally got up to this beautiful mountain setting, everyone whipped out their selfie sticks and smartphones and ruined the vibe. Chloé fell apart.
After that incident, the pressure was on. I started asking everyone—cab drivers, bus drivers, everyone—if they knew where we could find a monastery where nobody goes, in a remote place where we could visit a monk. Finally, someone said, “I know this one monastery—it’s pretty far away and remote, but I’ll drive you.”
We drove with him for about two hours into the mountains, and when we got to this beautiful, ancient monastery, they told us it was closed. We could hear chanting in the background—it was obvious everyone there was meditating—but I was still like, “You don’t understand! This crazy French girl came all the way from Paris to see you!”
Just then, this monk came over to us: He was very thin, with a shaved head, in traditional Buddhist robes, very earnest and, to our surprise, super-excited to meet us. He said, “Oh, I can show you around,” and he wound up taking us all around the monastery, showing us the prayer halls, the meditation rooms, the murals, and the carvings in this amazing building.
Although we’re both filmmakers, we were nervous about taking photos in this sacred space. Finally, I asked if I could, and the monk pulled out his smartphone and asked us to take a selfie! It wound up taking him 20 minutes, because he couldn’t quite figure out how to do it—vertical, horizontal—and the two filmmakers kept making it worse: “No, no, turn it like… no, wait, like this…” Finally, we got it. He seemed really happy. And… that was our Sichuan monk!
When we left, however, Chloé was so upset. “In my dream,” she said, “the monk gave me, like, some kind of sign—but this one just asked us to take a selfie!” I just burst out laughing. Today, Chloé and I still laugh about this trip, and I think about it a lot. It was a lesson in the beauty of getting lost. I have to thank Chloé for this, for being upset and crying, because it gave me the distance to observe us and everything around us—to see that the world is kind of silly, and it’s kind of beautiful, and that our job is to be open and present for it all.
Lulu Wang serves as writer, director, and executive producer of the new Prime Video six-part limited drama series Expats, which begins streaming January 26 and stars Nicole Kidman. She previously wrote and directed the acclaimed 2019 film The Farewell.