I am glad that Hema Hema – the latest film by Dzongsar Khyentse, is not banned or barred, as it was reported in the social media but that the film is under review. Having watched it several times, I would like to share my analysis of the film here. I may add that I am not associated with the production of the film in any way.
Hema Hema is a film that deals with our mundane struggle with something called identity. While identity is socially constructed and determines one’s place in a society, it is also because of that same identity that one feels constricted in life. The film, thus, is an antithesis: how about a two-week getaway where your identity is concealed and where you could exult in the freedom of being unknown.
A man known as ‘Expressionless’ (Tshering Dorji) makes it to such an event – convened once every 12 years by a god-like patriarch called Agay (Thinley Dorji). Expressionless is last to arrive at the secret venue where he joins a few hundred other participants. Except for Agay, everyone wears a mask to hide his or her identity. They are also strictly prohibited from revealing themselves or trying to find out the identity of others. Punishments are severe and even inhuman.
As the festival rolls on, primal instincts and desires take over. Expressionless falls for ‘Red Wrathful’ (Sadon Lhamo) and thereafter things get out of control. He is thrown back into the worst of human confusions: fear, which leads him to commit a crime.
Hema Hema offers complex and coded meanings and messages that it is hard to decipher them all. Nonetheless, one key message is the rendering of bardo – a state where one is completely stripped of any identity. If having an identity is suffocating, losing it, or not having one, could be scary.
The film is also loaded with metaphors – and follows the dictum: show but don’t tell. Technological invasions into our lives and degradation of traditions are subtly portrayed. The film, however, does not take the high moral ground. Rather there is a silent scream of questions. As Expressionless goes back to the festival for the second time – twenty-four years later, he is betrayed by his cellphone. At the festival the mild and meditative sound is replaced with pungent techno music. The boedra dances have made way for hip-hop moves. The convener of the festival is a young and anonymous leader who speaks from behind a red curtain. Agay is old and frail. These are strong metaphors for what is going on around us these days.
The film, as Dzongsar Khyentse said in an interview, was inspired by our behaviors on social media where we get a false sense of anonymity – and freedom. However, one can never be free from one’s conscience, which is the ultimate jury. In the final moments, Expressionless removes his masks and explodes in remorse for the crime he had committed and the deep regrets that he has been living with ever since. The resolution is simply beautiful: one has the choice to hide behind a mask, provided by the online world or by the real life, but one cannot hide anything from one’s conscience. It will always follow you and bug you.
In terms of production, Hema Hema is a celebration of Bhutanese ingenuity. While the writer-director had prior experience, all other key personnel were Bhutanese youth who have not been part of major projects before. And yet, Jigme Tenzing’s cinematography is mind blowing. Having sat as jury in international film festivals I can say that it is world-class. The performances by the lead actors, Tshering Dorji and Sadon Lhamo, are as good as they can get. One can feel the emotions, fear, desire, lust and even sadness. This was not an easy task with their real faces wrapped behind passive masks.
Everything in Hema Hema – the festival, dances and rituals, are fictional. Hence, to bring the audience to the present-day reality, the film starts and ends in a nightclub in Thimphu where a cocktail waitress (played by Zhao Xun) contemplates on her life. Symbols and semiotics are maximised. Every object, character, costume, music or landscape is masterfully chosen to blend with the overall message.
Hema Hema is by far the best from Khyentse Norbu’s repertoire. It is a courageous film. Critics have often cited The Cup as the best. I would disagree. The Cup was, no doubt, an honest piece but it was more a film and less an art. It had a straightforward storyline and a number of obvious subplots. Hema Hema, on the other hand, is more an art and less a film – in that different viewers can deduce different meanings, as they uncover layers upon layers that are intricately woven like eastern Bhutanese textile.
My own experience of reading the film (I have watched it over ten times, as I am writing an academic paper) is that Hema Hema almost hypnotises you. It is hauntingly beautiful. There is no hero or villain. The journey is undertaken from, and into, within – and for and against oneself. It grabs your soul and shakes it – with heart screeching lines and a poignant background score. You don’t watch Hema Hema, you become part of it. This is what distinguishes this film.
This work, therefore, is a major breakthrough in, what I would term as, the Bhutanese Narrative, which could be Bhutan’s contribution to world cinema. Western and Euro-centric storytelling based on a Hero’s Journey has long dominated the cine screen that any new or original style has been seen as a welcome respite – even in Hollywood. This happened with the New Iranian Cinema and later with the likes of Wang Kar Wai and Zhang Yimou. With adequate support and more engagements with film scholars and with other Bhutanese filmmakers emerging and perfecting the new narrative style there is an opportunity for Bhutan to spearhead another cinematic revolution that the world is eagerly yearning for.
(Writer-filmmaker-educator, currently pursuing doctoral studies in communication at the University of Macau)