I am a huge fan of The Cup, a movie I somehow managed to watch at the cinema on it’s limited release back in 1999 and have resisted a number of times since. Khyentse Norbu’s debut and indeed Bhutan’s debut movie is a wonderfully engaging tale of a bunch of young monks desperate to watch the World Cup. A task made more difficult by the kingdom’s complete lack of televisions. I’m not sure how but I’ve missed both of Norbu’s intervening movies but clocking his latest, Hema Hema: Sing me a Song While I Wait, in this year’s LFF was exciting news. To say it’s a good way removed from his debut is something of an understatement.
We start mysteriously in a modern day nightclub, a young waitress busses tables before retreating to the quiet of the ladies room to count her tips. Spinning back twenty-five years ago, we pick up with a nameless young man, traversing the Bhutanese rainforest. He dons an expressionless mask and blows into a whistle and waits expectantly. The following day to continues this until he is eventually collected by some people wielding bows and arrows. It transpires he is on his way to a month long expedition with a large group of people, all rendered blank by their masks. Stripped of their familiar clothing and their faces, the group participates in various ceremonies in the forest, overseen by a leader and a group of guards, the only people showing their real faces.
And that’s pretty much it really, things continue, people get up to all kinds of shenanigans (stealing illicit booze, pissing in the empty bottle etc) and it’s all fun and games until somewhat inevitably somebody is raped. A guard (the woman’s boyfriend) is murdered in the process but due to the group’s vows, the perpetrator is left merely to live with his crime. The victim unmasks in anguish and is subsequently locked up. Twenty four years later (the ceremonies happen every twelve years), the rapist and murderer returns to seek forgiveness for his crimes.
Hema Hema (which translates from Bhutanese as ‘once upon a time’) is a weird, intoxicating movie to behold. The photography and music gives it a very authentic feel and it draws you in to its simple tale. At once very traditional and strikingly contemporary (the story was inspired by internet chatrooms), this isn’t a movie that presents you with any answers. It’s also a movie that, though set in Bhutan, presents a situation that could be seen in any society. Khyentse Norbu is apparently working his way up to making a biographical movie about the Buddha and in this film you get the feeling that he is testing more spiritual waters on his journey. Whenever he gets to it, that movie will be something worth watching, in the meantime, this one is interesting if a little opaque.