Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait (2016)
Director: Khyentse Norbu
Cast: Tshering Dorji, Sadon Lhamo, Thinley Dorji, Tony Leung, Zhou Xun
Plot: Somewhere deep in a forest of Bhutan, there is a gathering every twelve years of men and women chosen by the Old Man to enjoy a few days of anonymity. Masked silhouettes participate in rituals, performances and dances. Faceless, the men and the women allow themselves to be lascivious, playful and daring.
Genre: Drama / Mystery
Awards: Won Platform Prize - Honourable Mention (Toronto)
Rating: M18 for sexual scenes
International Sales: HanWay Films
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
I have heard of Khyentse Norbu for some time, but haven’t quite explored any of his films. All I can say is that Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait is not the best place to start in your discovery of Bhutan’s most famous filmmaker. It is his fourth feature, after The Cup (1999), Travelers and Magicians (2003) and Vara: A Blessing (2013), all of which I’m eager to see if the opportunity comes.
Norbu is certainly an interesting figure. Trained in Tibetan Buddhism and regarded as a highly-revered monk, he has monastic duties first, and filmmaking pursuits second. His first contribution to cinema was to provide consultative work for Bertolucci’s Little Buddha (1993). Six years later, he made his and Bhutan’s first ever feature film.
Hema Hema could be his most controversial film. There are scenes of clubbing and drinking, scenes of masked persons having sex in the deep forest, and the picture largely has a sense of “negative energy” (as an audience member pointed out in a post-screening dialogue with the film’s production manager). How could a man, so religious in his spiritual duties, make a film that expresses humans’ primal desires?
Hema Hema begins in a club with loud, techno music as the camera follows a woman into the washroom. It is an intriguing prologue, oozing with style and rhythm, and could easily have been a scene in, say, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Millennium Mambo (2001).
After which, a sudden tonal shift brings us deep into a natural environment of vast greenery. Henceforth, Norbu develops a concept where a group of masked men and women gather every twelve years to enjoy a few days of anonymity in collective isolation. It is ceremonial and ritualistic, and no one dares to unmask out of fear of being known.
It is no doubt a fascinating premise, and we follow a man who becomes infatuated with a woman. As Buddhist teachings would allude, desires will lead one down a treacherous path. Perhaps that’s the point of Hema Hema, to show that humans can commit deplorable acts when their identities are unbeknownst.
Culturally, this concept has no roots in Bhutanese tradition. But the masks, designed and painted so beautifully (and for some, to ghastly effect) are a sight to behold, some of which are actual masks dating back hundreds of years.
Much of Hema Hema may center on hidden desires, but the film also tries to comment on modernity to mixed effect, sometimes jeopardising its tonal consistency. An example is a scene (that irks me to no end) involving modern dance and music in the middle of the forest in the later part of the film—where has subtlety gone to?
Overall, Hema Hema is never enthralling, and although some of its philosophical musings of birth and death do remind us of our ephemeral existence, it is a film that is easy to appreciate, but difficult to embrace.
Verdict: No doubt fascinating, but never enthralling, Norbu’s fourth feature lacks tonal consistency.
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Post-screening dialogue with the film's production manager, facilitated by Yong Shu Chiang (Singapore Film Society)