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 in 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.