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Hema Hema: A Review By Sonam Wangmo Dukpa-Jhalani


The title “Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait” evokes a story that belongs to the past and also to the present. This is the unusual space the movie occupies; it is of this world and of another at the same time. 

by Sonam Wangmo Dukpa-Jhalani

Hema Hema is conceptualized, written, and directed by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche.  Khyentse Rinpoche is an experienced filmmaker who has made movies such as The Cup, Travellers and Magicians, and Vara: A Blessing.  He has also authored several books including the latest The Guru Drinks Bourbon?  

Like Rinpoche’s unique sensibility distinct in his books and in his previous movies, Hema Hema has an unusual plot.  Every twelve years a group of men and women gather in the deep, untouched forests of Eastern Bhutan for fifteen days to find out who they really are.  They have the freedom of anonymity to do as they please, but they must follow the rules of not revealing themselves or finding out who the other members are.  In this isolated setting of false liberation where one must keep a mask on at all times, things fall apart swiftly and insidiously, and a sinister, karmic price is paid at the end.

The essence of the movie came to Rinpoche from his observation of the social media world where people’s identities are obfuscated by the computer screen and sometimes plain hidden; where people can misinterpret what’s posted, and find a false sense of freedom to spew the most hateful comments without a thought for the other person, and without considering the consequences.

We are immersed in the director’s social criticism of how when masked we unmask our anarchical, beastly tendencies. We, the viewers, also knowingly or unknowingly receive teachings of bardo—the state of limbo between death and rebirth, a state most of us hardly consider.

The lead actor of Hema Hema, Tshering Dorji, a charismatic and natural actor (and an excellent yodeler who takes you to wind and the high Himalayan mountains with his voice), has the hefty task of conveying his feelings with a mask on.  It is not the easiest thing to do, but he does so successfully – we feel his desire, we sense his fear, we experience his aggression and remorse.  The lovely Sadon Lhamo enacts the role of his love/lust interest, ‘Wrath’.  What is remarkable is that Khyentse Rinpoche has roped in two talented and hugely popular Chinese/Hong Kong stars, the ethereal Zhou Xun and deeply, expressive Tony Leung for cameo roles, which they are gushingly, enthusiastic about.  Special mention also needs to be made of the elderly Agay (Thinley Dorji), and the perceptive camera work of Jigme Tenzing who captures the rustic beauty of rural Bhutan.

Photo by Pawo Choyning Dorji

Like an Akira Kurosawa or Satyajit Ray movie, two masters of 20th century cinema, and whom Rinpoche has great admiration for, Hema Hema is slow but dramatic, subtle but powerful.  Some of the scenes in the movie are rendered like visual poetry, and some like a mystic, operatic performance.  The sensation you will feel at the end is of a circuitous, groundless, timeless one, with shocking consequences.  However, “Hema Hema” is not treated with a high, moral hand, instead it has the touch of an artist with a subtle and deep sensibility. Each frame is a beautiful, symbolic, meaning-infused painting with colors that light up the screen.

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