What would you do if you were completely anonymous, such that nothing you do can be traced back to you? That is the alluring question posed in Tibetan lama Khyentse Norbu's eerie and intriguing Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait
Hema Hema opens rather unexpectedly in a night club with Chinese actress Zhou Xun, whose significance will not be known until the end of the film. The modern-day bookend then leads into the green mountains of Bhutan where a man puts on a mask and surrenders himself to the tribe hosting the (fictional) ritual at the heart of the film.
Every 12 years, a group of participants are invited to take part in a ritual that lasts for 15 days in the mountains. The participants, all wearing masks and skirts that hide their faces and genders, are kept in the dark of each other's identities, but there may be people who know each other, or have a bone to pick with each other.
The tribal elder lays out the rules of anonymity and order, while acknowledging that there will be those who derive excitement from figuring out another's identity, and that the intoxicating power of being unknown will lead some to reckless actions. Sure enough, violence and sex settle in immediately under the cover of trees, tents and darkness. The protagonist weaves his way around, silently observing with unclear motives, until lust and aggression drive him down a dark path.
Though the ritual participants are masked and rarely speak, the film is teeming with sound and expression. The tribe regularly holds haunting song, dance and play performances that symbolize birth and death. The grotesque masks worn by the participants also take on a spooky presence of their own, especially when staring straight at the camera or peeking through foliage.
I fully expected Hema Hema to be a slow and esoteric art film with spiritual lessons and symbolism that will go over my head as I nod off. But the film's design and cinematography are actually crisp, dynamic and engaging, and its moral allegory, relevant and resonant. From the film's primal and exotic trappings emerge an unsettling microcosm of society and a fascinating vision of how anonymity empowers and poisons human nature. There are definitely still many things about the film that went over my head, but never once did I nod off, for only the attentive gets to see Tony Leung pop up in a brief cameo.