Kaori Momoi’s “Hee” (火 Hee) – 2016 Hong Kong Film Review

In just her second film as a director, Kaori Momoi skillfully captures the psychological unwinding of an aging woman in “Hee.”  The title is a phonetic for the kanji character meaning “fire,” a nod to the Fuminori Nakamura short story inspiring the film and the main protagonist Azusa’s fascination with the element.  One can tell that all is not quite right with Azusa in the opening scene alone, when she is found washing her feet in an outdoor sink.  A beach clearly not set in Japan serves as the backdrop – it’s Los Angeles, hinted at with a passing reference to “Venice [Beach]” – but this choice of setting intrigues as it mentally displaces both the main characters and the viewer.  It also quickly becomes clear that Azusa is a member of the “world’s oldest profession,” as evidenced through a confrontation between her and a potential client at the same sink.

Initially, though, a troubled childhood turned adolescence turned adulthood instead seems to the be main reason that she books therapy sessions with Dr. Sanada (Yugo Saso).  These begin as a winding soliloquy about her disturbing  life history to her passive psychiatrist; in fact, he is so silent that it almost appears that she is talking to a mirror at first.  But her words clearly hit a nerve in Sanada, who merely listens but doesn’t give advice.  The picture then alternates between confessional and Sanada’s awkward family life with his daughter and wife, a fellow doctor in the same office (Ayako Fujitani).

Azusa’s sessions with Sanada abruptly stop when she tells him he is not cut out for his chosen line of work.  Several years later, a court asks him to evaluate her once again, this time because she has been accused of a crime.  The doctor seems to have gained more confidence in his speech since Azusa’s last visit, but now he has a new motive: instead of listening, he must guide her towards the truth to help the police.  Is it the truth as told verbatim, or a truth covered by delusion?

Some may find the relationship between doctor and patient in “Hee” a bit frustrating.  After all, Azusa tells everything, and while Sanada silently reacts, one cannot sense how her words – detailing everything from arson to assault to her spiral into prostitution – truly affect him.  However, in a way, the viewer too plays the psychiatrist like Sanada does.  Azusa herself knows that she isn’t going to therapy appointments with Sanada to get to know him at all, and has willingly put herself in a one-sided conversation.  “I use you like a wall to bounce things off of,” Azusa realizes out loud to the doctor.

As such, the majority of the film can be considered a one-woman monologue that zigzags among justification, truth, horror and denial. With the majority of the plot development etched in words and expressions, what astonishes is that Momoi the new director is also the veteran actress who plays Azusa. In this American-Japanese indie, Momoi’s performance alone verbally teeters between self-assuredness and madness, making “Hee” well worth the watch.

Making its Asian premiere, “Hee” screens at the Hong Kong International Film Festival on Mar. 31 at 7:30 p.m., and Apr. 2 at 12 p.m.