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HERE – Review

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It opens on a black screen and to traffic noise. A man returns home from work, sits down to read the newspaper and observes a crack in the ceiling. The television newscast reports the same as he has just read so he gets up and strangles his wife in the kitchen. Please make up your mind quickly whether this makes any sense to you or not, then watch HERE.

For the rest of the film the viewer is in pretty much the same situation as the aforementioned protagonist, He Zhiyuan played by John Low – almost. With astonishing ease you enter into the situation you were just about to question, as you are welcomed into Island Hospital: the pars pro toto setting which from here on serves as more than just the background to a story. An unseen film crew observes, interviews, witnesses the goings-on at this place, recording the lives and varying states of convalescence of some ten inmates and additional staff. For this is a medical detention facility after all, a forensic psychiatry that we are in, and while you won’t ever risk forgetting about the fact that it is the criminally insane you keep company with, you will wonder about the condition of those outside. Are they the criminally sane?

At this point I have to sincerely proclaim with the proud voice of the reviewer that it is a trapping quality of this movie that I shall not indulge in attempting to be (or sound) any smarter than the subject I am to write about. This because HERE, without any question, is a very smart film, carefully written and full of interlinear wordplay. It is preoccupied with the frame set by the workings of that hospital and the special form of therapy practiced therein, and the patients to a lesser extent. In essence it is a mind game on film; and this could be pretty dull. But it isn’t. HERE is one of those well-crafted films that feature a different surface value much like an aftertaste, and are therefore intriguing to watch – if, that is, you are inclined to think about what you see and can actually enjoy the process.
Advanced viewing or not, there is a method to the madness shown here, and it comes well packaged in little episodes, the kind of observations a documentary filmmaker would be keen on making when trying to re-present the inner life of Island Hospital. Accordingly, a number of these criminals who are at a pathological discord with reality step forth to tell their story, but they do it twice. The second take comes as part of their treatment, a method designed to unravel the act of their misdeeds by playing it out in front of a camera. In their performance they are made to alter the pivotal scene and gear their respective fates towards a better ending.

This straightforward procedure is fittingly called “videocure” and largely what the film revolves around. We see how the patients respond differently to this form of therapy, for whom it works and for whom it does not. He Zhiyuan for one, who lost his voice after the murder of his wife, does recover. Or at least that is what we learn from the doctors’ statements recorded as part of the enveloping inquiry that is the eclectic (and telling) paradigm of HERE. Everybody is talking to the camera in this film at some point, if only during the shooting of the films within the larger picture.

The mise en abyme as practiced in HERE is not just fancy dressing in terms of cinematic strategy but smoothly sinks into the fabric of the story, for a story it is. Once you accept your assigned role as a viewer – or rather the sufficiently specific proposition the film makes – that you are in fact sitting in on the videocure yourself, perhaps by just as much as taking it seriously, then you will know it really is about observation, about watching the watcher. Close to the method of that crude therapy which, so goes the explanation, heals by re-enactment, you are invited to reflect on film and film’s reflection and the editing voice is a voice over narrative that strategically falsifies a memory – or an experience.

But please: forget after reading! HERE offers a viewing thesis that is entertaining to the intellectually receptive, and while it dresses up the emotional make of its cast, it probably does so with a lot less make-up than your everyday reality. Everything is about getting behind the situation in this picture. Re-enactment and simulation – only two of a plethora of handy vocabulary to adorn any staple postmodernist conversation for sure. They not only fit the story, but they are the whole point of this movie. Luckily, we are spared the discourse on a strictly referential level. What statements are made by the staff and psychiatric doctors, they are always undermined by the clinical state they are in – all of them, medical personnel included.

HERE consists of scenic shots and wide angles that are rhythmically interspersed with the interview set-up of people directly speaking to the viewer. The scenery of Island Hospital is completely devoid of wonders, but full of routine. Nothing is hidden, and no-one is flying over the cuckoo’s nest here. For a closed setting internment film, the place is oddly indistinct, almost as if it were too plain, or too unspecific, to make much fuss about it. Instead, this sweeping treatment adds to the eerie sense of normalcy the picture exudes most of the time, and which makes it so easy to get into the motion. Together with the harmonious, even pacing of the film, it is possible to enjoy its near decorative detachment from the characters we get to know in close succession, but only barely, as individual cases.

As they tell us why they are there, we understand that the inmates have all at some point in their lives fallen out with society for infanticide, as kleptomaniacs or split personalities. They are all curious objects to the camera gaze, moving about slowly under heavy medication as they are detained in the hospital’s garden idyll and their own induced drowsiness. A certain chill permeates everything. The analogy of presenting the world as stage, or the world as a madhouse, is well known and has been tested many times before.

In this case, the idea of therapy through film is touching as it is comical and, as self-consciousness gets sought in the image, can be very funny indeed. A parable the film sure is; it is not a satire. That, after all, wouldn’t yield much, only caricature, at best. And then, one can detect a strain of post-colonial commentary in it as well, with the post-colonial experience being not unlike a neurotic voice over, and it is in the choice of the cast for the doctors as well as in the architecture and interiors.

There is something calm and sedated about the film, but it is not serene. The beauty is in the many combinations and variations it runs through, but the discoveries to be made unfortunately don’t take very long. It contains many a sparkling quote and some profoundly smart lines, but most of it is too readily accessible. In all, HERE is lacking in the mystery in detail; perhaps there is simply too much light in its images – a characteristic feature of clinical psychology and byproduct of the diagnostics and treatment practiced at Island Hospital.

At times it feels like a classy dress laid out as plain cloth. But such is the style of Ho Tzu Nyen’s films and you are invited to like it or not. As a slow paced film with nothing much happening, it is a tad docile, maybe, but I really like the voices. Still, for all its tranquillity, it is not as intuitively brilliant as Apichatpong’s films and filmic in-conclusions. That the story should end as a loop in my view weakens the narrative strategy.

A strong opening and a strong soundtrack, a carefully developed script and good editing – such are the ingredients of this remarkably mature debut feature by Ho Tzu Nyen, which deservedly premiered at Cannes in May and makes it to the local screen at The Picturehouse and the Cathay this week. HERE is well worth watching; it ranks among the best and most expressive films yet to come out of Singapore. It practices a distinct cinematic and narratological style without exercising the camp notion of the established avant-garde (which indeed it bears ample reference to). For some, it may even work as therapy to readjust their filmic taste-buds. Knowing full well that it won’t work its charms on just anybody, I recommend this subtle mind adventure trip – certainly to you who have already bothered to read thus far.

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