Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait (2016) by Khyentse Norbu

A gathering of mysterious masked people in the forest of Bhutan leads to a regrettable end

Bhutanese director and Buddhist Lama Khyentse Norbu contributed greatly to create a new breed of Bhutanese Cinema with his "Travellers and Magicians" in 2003 and he is now at his 4th feature. “Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait” had its World Premiere at Locarno Film Festival in 2016 and since then has been successfully performing the Festival run, appearing at Toronto, Busan, London, Taipei, Osaka and it will be the Closing movie at Five Flavours Film Festival in Warsaw, wrapping up the special focus on Bhutanese cinema.

A beautiful young woman works as a waitress in a cool techno club. She is staring at her own image in a mirror when she closes her eyes and we are magically transported in an undefined time, in a deep, untouched forest where a young man is about joining a mysterious reunion ruled by strict guidelines.  Every 12 years an old Guru summons a group of people that will spend a lunar fortnight together, completely isolated from the rest of the world, wearing a uniform and a mask at all times to hide identity and gender and indulging in this anonymity. The group will attend rituals and liturgies, held by the Guru to celebrate the intermediate state between death and rebirth, a limbo where the lack of identity will facilitate a personal epiphany.

Our protagonist Expressionless (the look of his mask) spends his time in the “camp” observing the others during the day and participating to the scenic nocturnal celebrations, while slowly getting interested in a fellow mask, Red Wrathful, who - he believes - is a woman. When the interest becomes an obsession he abruptly commits an appalling mistake that quickly snowballs into tragedy and will hunt him for the rest of his life. Elliptically, the movie ends where it starts, leaving us with a good deal to chew on.

Exotic and intriguing “Hema Hema” means “Once upon a time” in native Dzongkha language and the English subtitle refers to the aforementioned limbo, the waiting room of rebirth. The director Khyentse Norbu is a relevant Buddhist personality and teacher and has written and directed a tale that not surprisingly is informed by his Buddhist faith. And so are most Bhutanese movies, where the unavoidable karmic price must always be paid at the end. However, “Hema Hema” flies above the plain morality fable and offers several metaphors and open questions making it rich and multifaceted.

Excluding the Guru’s prayers, the movie has hardly any dialog, “Anonymity is power”, he chants and urges to explore the beastly side of us, like in a grotesque Carnival people are allowed to lose individuality and control behind the mask. Interestingly, the director has gained inspiration from chat rooms and social medias where users feel freedom of action behind the anonymity of their screens.
The pace is somehow discontinuous, the middle part being rather slow but the shock of having to rethink our perception of some of the characters is a refreshing cold shower.

Talking about acting in a film where actors wear masks all the time is slightly challenging, however the popular actor Tshering Dorji as Expressionless does a good job with mime-like technique and he has a chance to show his face at the end, at least. Stunning Chinese actress Xun Zhou’s handles the “nose & tail” of the movie with an almost silent yet extremely charismatic role and finally, as a bonus you can play “Where’s Tony Leung Chiu-Way” game and spot his micro appearance behind the mask. 

The visual becomes fundamental where the dialogues are sparse and it must be good. Worry not, it is. Cinematographer Jigme Tenzing makes the most of the incredibly luxuriant and paradisiac location in the southeastern region of Bhutan. Colors have density and body and they infuse everything with sensuality and carnality, in stark contrast with the icy and anodyne atmosphere of the blue-lit techno club. The costumes, albeit minimal, are very effective and the elaborated colorful masks create a sinister and powerful atmosphere. An important disclaimer to make is that all the rituals, costumes, masks and dances have nothing to do with Bhutanese traditions and they are all beautifully and skillfully fake.

“Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait” is an intriguing work and despite being arcane in parts, especially for Buddhism novices, offers some interesting hints to ponder over.



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Team,1,Sha Po Lang,1,Shake Rattle and Roll,1,Shakti Sounder Rajan,1,Shanjhey Kumar Perumal,1,Shanker Raman,1,Shaw Brothers,2,She Remembers He Forgets,2,She's the Boss,1,Shehjar,1,Shiboprosad Mukherjee,1,Shift,2,Shigeru Umebayashi,1,Shikhar Verma,11,Shikhar Verna,3,Shinichi Fukazawa,1,Shinji Somai,2,Shinji Sômai,1,Shinjuku Swan,1,shinjuku Swan II,1,Shinjuku Triad Society,1,Shinobi no Kuni,2,Shinsuke Ogawa,1,Shinsuke Sato,2,Shinya Tsukamoto,4,Shireen Seno,2,Shirley Abraham,1,Shock Wave,1,Shôhei Imamura,1,Shoot for the Contents,1,Shorts,4,Shotaro Kobayashi,1,Shu Qi,1,Shunji Iwai,2,Shutter,1,Shuttle Life,2,Shyam Ramsay,1,Siddiq Ahamed,1,Sidharth Bharathan,1,Signature,1,Silent Mist,1,Silver Spleen,2,Singapore,3,Singh Anand,1,Singing Chen,1,Sinophone,1,Sion Sono,10,Siti,1,Sixth Sense Hooker,1,Slavemen,1,Sleep Curse,1,Small Talk,2,Smriti Mundhra,1,Sogo Ishii,2,Solanin,1,Solitude,1,Solo,1,Someone To Talk To,1,Sompot Chidgasompongse,2,Song Hae-sung,1,Song Kang-ho,1,Song of the Week,22,Sopawan Boonnimitra,1,Sopon Sakdapisit,1,Soul,1,Soul Mate,1,SoulMate,2,South Korea,20,Sri Lanka,3,Srijit Mukherji,7,Stammering Ballad,1,Stanley Kwan,1,Stanley Tong,1,Steel Rain,1,Stephen Chow,1,Stephen Fung,2,Steve James,1,Still the Water,1,Stoneman Murders,1,Story in Taipei,1,Strange Circus,1,Studio Ghibli,1,StudioCanal,4,Subenja Pongkorn,2,Suffering of Ninko,2,Sugihara Survivors: Jewish and Japanese,1,Suicide Club,1,Suman Mukhopadhay,1,Summer Snow,1,Sun-ho Cho,1,Sunao Katabuchi,3,Sunday Beauty Queen,1,Sung-hong Kim,1,Sunk Into the Womb,1,Susumu Hirasawa,1,Sweating the Small Stuff,2,Tadashi Nagayama,1,Tae Guk Gi,1,Tag,1,Taiwan,26,Takaaki Hashiguchi,1,Takahide Hori,1,Takahiro Miko,1,Takahisa Zeze,1,Takao Nakano,1,Takaomi Ogata,4,Takashi Miike,10,Take Care of My Cat,1,Takeo Kikuchi,2,Takeshi Kaneshiro,1,Takeshi Kitano,1,Takuro Nakamura,2,Talop Wangchuk,1,Tamil,4,Tamura Senichi,1,Tang Seng Kiat,2,Tanit Jitnukul,1,Tanvir Ashraf,2,Taste of Rice Flower,2,Tatara Samurai,1,Tatsuhi Omori,1,Tatsumi,1,Tatsumi Kumashiro,1,Teddy Soeriaatmadja,1,Teenkahon,1,Teppei Nakamura,1,Tetsuo the Iron Man,1,Tetsuya Mariko,1,Tetsuya Nakashima,1,Thailand,21,Thanatos Drunk,1,That's It,1,The Adventurers,2,The Apology,1,The Bad,1,The Blue Redemption,1,The Boy and the Beast,3,The boy from Ipanema,1,The Brink,1,The Chase,1,The Cinema Travellers,1,The Crawler in the Attic,1,The Crazy Family,1,The Day After,1,The Detective,1,The Discloser,1,The Dollhouse,1,The elephant and the sea,2,The Executioner,1,The Eye's Dream,1,The Forest Whispers,1,The Forsaken Land,1,The Fortress,1,The Gangster's Daughter,1,The Girl Who Never Knew War,1,The Golden Fortress,1,The Good,1,The Great Buddha+,1,The Great Passage,1,The Hole,1,The Hungry Lion,1,The Inugami Family,1,The Iron Ministry,1,The Island That All Flow By,1,The Isthmus,1,The Kid from the Big Apple,1,The King of Pigs,1,The Last Executioner,1,The Last Painting,1,The Long Excuse,1,The Looming Storm,1,The Lowlife,1,The Magic Blade,1,The Man Without a Map,1,The Mayor,1,The Merciless,2,The Mermaid,1,The Muse,1,The Naked Island,1,The Name,1,The Net,1,The Night of the Earthquake,1,The Outlaws,1,The Prison,1,The Promise,1,The Raid,1,The Raid 2,1,The recipe,1,The Road Home,1,The Road to Mandalay,1,the Robber's Daughter,1,The Room,1,The Sacrament,1,The Salesman,1,The Seen and Unseen,1,The Sleep Curse,1,The Sower,2,The Story of the Disappearance of Maryam,1,The Strange Saga of Hiroshi the Freeloading Sex Machine,1,The Swindlers,1,The Table,1,The Third Murder,1,The Thousand Faces of Dunjia,1,The Tiger: An Old Hunter's Tale,1,The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue,1,The Tooth and the Nail,1,The Truth Beneath,1,The Vanished,1,The Villainess,3,The Violin Player,1,The Way We Are,1,The Weird,1,The Windmill Palm Grove,1,Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru,1,Third WIndow,1,This Is Not What I Expected,1,This Is Not What I Expected!,1,Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum,1,Three Sisters,1,Three Times,1,Tiffany Hsiung,1,Tik Tik Tik,1,Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan,1,Tokyo Ghoul,1,Tokyo Heaven,1,Tokyo Idols,1,Tokyo Vampire Hotel,1,Tolerance Film Festival,1,Tom Waller,2,Tony Leung,1,Tony Takitani,1,Torico,2,Toronto International Film Festival,1,Toshiaki Toyoda,2,Toshihisa Yokoshima,3,Toshimasha Kobayashi,1,Toshio Matsumoto,1,Toshiya Fujita,1,Town in a Lake,1,Traces of Sin,1,Trailers,80,Train to Busan,1,Tran Ham,1,Translated articles,1,Trapped,1,Travellers and Magicians,1,Treb Monteras II,2,Trinh T. Minh-Ha,3,Triple Threat,1,Tsai Ming-liang,2,Tulsi Ramsay,1,Twenty Two,1,Twilight Dinner,1,Twitch: You Are My Toy,1,Typhoon Club,1,Um Tae-hwa,1,Unbowed,1,Uncovered: Tales of the Naked Theater,1,V.I.P.,1,Vagabond,1,Vampire Cleanup Department,2,Vanishing Time A Boy Who Returned,1,Vannaphone Sitthirath,1,various,1,Varnyathil Aashanka,1,Verena Paravel,1,Vesoul International Film Festival,20,Vidya Balan,1,Vietnam,5,Vikramaditya Motwane,1,Vimukthi Jayasundara,1,Vinay Shukla,1,Vincent Kok,1,Violated Angels,1,Visitor Q,1,Vital,1,Vitaly Mansky,1,Vivien Qu,1,Voyage to Terengganu,1,Wai Ka-fai,1,Walk on Girl,1,Wang Bing,3,Wang Chao,2,Wang Lung-wei,1,Wang Ming-tai,1,Warriors of the Dawn,2,We Make Antiques,1,Weeds on Fire,1,Wei-Hao Cheng,1,Wellgo USA,2,West North West,2,What A Wonderful Family 2,1,What Time Is It There?,1,Whispering Corridors,1,Whispering Star,1,White Sun,1,Who Killed Cock Robin,1,Whore Angel,1,Wilson Yip,1,Wiman Rizkidarajat,1,Wine War,1,Winter Vacation,1,With Prisoners,1,Without Memory,1,Wol-Ha: Very Bad Moon Rising,1,Woman of the Lake,1,Won Shin-Yeon,1,Wong Chun,3,Wong Jing,2,Wong Kar-wai,2,Woo Ming Jin,1,Xaisongkham Induangchanthy,1,Xu Bing,1,Ya-che Yang,1,Yamato (California),4,Yan Pak Wing,2,Yang Chao,2,Yang Ik-june,1,Yang Jong-hyeon,1,Yang Woo-seok,1,Yao Tian,1,Yeon Sang-ho,2,Yes Madam,1,Yeti Obhijaan,2,Yin Liang,1,Yiu-wai Chu,1,Yoji Yamada,1,Yoo Ha,1,Yoon-chul chung,1,Yoonsuk Jung,1,Yosep Anggi Noen,1,Yoshihiro Hanno,1,Yoshihiro Nakamura,2,Yoshihiro Nishimura,3,Yoshimasa Jimbo,1,Yoshinari Nishikori,1,Yoshishige Yoshida,1,Yoshitaka Mori,1,Yoshiyuki Kishi,1,Yosuke Takeuchi,2,Yotsuya kaidan,1,You Losers!,1,Your Name,1,Youth,1,Yu Aoi,2,Yu Irie,1,Yu Sang-wook,1,Yuen Chor,1,Yuen Woo-ping,1,Yuji Shimomura,1,Yûji Tajiri,2,Yujiro Harumoto,2,Yuki Tanada,1,Yukihiko Tsutsumi,2,Yukuhiro Morigaki,2,Yusaku Matsumoto,2,Yutaka Ikejima,3,Yutaro Nakamura,1,Yuya Ishii,2,Zakka Films,2,Zhang Lu,1,Zhang Nan,1,Zhang Yimou,1,Zig Dulay,1,Zombiology: Enjoy Yourself Tonight,1,Zuairijah Mou,1,Zuri Rinpoche. Bhutan. Five Flavours,1,
Asian Film Vault: Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait (2016) by Khyentse Norbu
Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait (2016) by Khyentse Norbu
A gathering of mysterious masked people in the forest of Bhutan leads to a regrettable end
Asian Film Vault
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