New Film Explores Why Being Vulnerable “Is Actually True Strength”

This article originally appeared on Climbing

Letting Go is a new film about Taiwanese American climber Julie Hwang, who is an active part of the local bouldering scene in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Devastated by the traumatic and unexpected end of her marriage two summers ago, Hwang worked through her darkest moments to find a renewed sense of self and strength. Hwang says the experience was the hardest time of her life--but it was also profoundly important.

Climbing sat down with Hwang to learn about the making of the film, what it's like to have cameras filming you in your hardest moment, and what she hopes others can take away from Letting Go. The interview has been edited lightly for grammar and clarity.

Julie Hwang heel hooks a steep boulder in Tennesse.
(Photo: Andy Cochrane)

Climbing: When Julie Ellison, the film's director, reached out and asked if you would be open to sharing your story, what did you think?

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Hwan: We got along right away on that first call. At first I thought the film would be about the connection between climbing and Chinese medicine, the two big parts of my life. Then she sent an email with a list of questions and one of the big ones was about nature as healing. That was when I realized I needed to tell her the actual story of my last couple years. I almost felt like the universe had tricked me in some way.

Climbing: What do you mean tricked?

Hwang: I don't like being on camera--never have. I don't even like being the center of attention. But there was this nagging feeling that I had to do it. I emailed Julie the full story, the good and the bad, and she emailed me back right away with so much kindness and compassion. I felt really safe sharing all of it with a relative stranger. There was some bond right away. After that it felt even more like I needed to do this film, even though I had a lot of moments that felt terrifying and exposing. Even this interview, honestly. It took me a few days to respond to your request because I was scared of who would see and read it.

Climbing: Before the production team flew to Tennessee to meet you, what did you expect?


Hwang: I tried really hard not to have expectations. I figured that we would climb a lot and do an interview at some point. I wanted to just roll with it. Lead time and expectations allow me to worry about it. Filming felt like forever and just a fast second. Overall it was a really cool experience, mostly because we all got along so well. When the crew left I remember thinking how much I felt like myself. I didn't expect that. I've never felt that way before after being on the spot or in front of a camera.

Climbing: What was it like while shooting? What scared you the most and what did you learn from it?

Hwang: It's hard to compare, because this is my first documentary. That said, it felt just right for this project. It was natural to have everyone here, to go climbing everyday, to have some of my close lady friends around. The interview was by far the hardest part; searching for the right words, wanting to say things with integrity. I was the most nervous to say things about Chinese medicine. It wasn't until I saw the rough draft that I felt okay with it. I want to be a good representation of that way of thinking. I know it might be the first time people have exposure to Chinese medicine and I want it to be a good experience.

Climbing: What were the biggest challenges while making the film?


Hwang: Shooting it went really smoothly. We had a good crew, good weather, and good energy. For me the biggest challenge was getting over how it may or may not be perceived by other people. What they will think when they see it. Like people I haven't seen or talked to in a long time and don't know what's happened in the last few years. So just getting past my own emotions and being okay with it being my story. All I can do is tell the truth from my perspective; I can't control anyone else.

Climbing: Can you tell us about your group of lady climbers in Chattanooga?

Hwang: This was most of the core group who showed up for me right after everything happened. All of these girls got it. They were there for me in the dark moments. We all live to climb, but it's more than that. They are a really good crew. I'm really lucky.

Climbing: What keeps you climbing and has your relationship to it changed in the last two years?


Hwang: It's the best. It's a unique form of movement. Something new for your body to learn and adapt to. It's not about speed or velocity, like running or anything else. It's about precision, body position, and attention to detail. Moving your leg three inches in one direction completely changes what the rest of your body is capable of. That's incredible. Things are suddenly possible. Once you have that experience of small changes making a big impact, you start thinking anything can be possible. It's a mindset on hard things in the world. A belief you can make small steps and eventually succeed. You're always doing the hardest thing you've ever tried. You quickly learn a lot about failure and resilience.

Climbing: How long have you been practicing Chinese medicine? What's the overlap between Chinese medicine and climbing?

Hwang: I graduated from school in 2010, and spent a few years in the clinic while in school, so it's been well over a decade now. The big overlap between the two is nature. In both climbing and Chinese medicine I am fully present. They are the two places in my life where I find flow. I often joke that Chinese medicine school ruined my chances to be a dirtbag. I love climbing that much. But I actually need both. They wouldn't mean as much if I didn't have them to balance each other.

Climbing: What do you hope others learn from the film?


Hwang: That they aren't alone. Many people have gone through trauma. I hope the film is a reminder to be kind to themselves, to be patient, and that it's okay to be vulnerable and ask for help. This was the hardest time of my life because it hit me in my deepest wounds. When you're in the darkest place of your life, it's so important to let people in. It's not a sign of weakness, it's actually true strength. The path to healing can come in unlikely packages, like a documentary about yourself. It's hard to say yes, but it's important to still do it. It's about choosing that path over and over again, no matter how scary or hard it may be.

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