“What you’re holding in your hand is like a micro-forest,” Shuxiu (Liao Gong) informs Stefan (Stefan Gota) in “Here,” handing him a sample of moss she’s collected in her work as a bryologist. It may not look like much to the common eye, but she assured him that there is much that could be learned from the amorphous green clump in his palm, convincing him enough for it come alive even if there’s no obvious movement. It’s an understanding that writer/director Bas Devos cultivates from the very first frame of his sweet sophomore feature, trained on a skyscraper-in-progress framed from below with greenery around it. The wilderness doesn’t come across as the main focus, but the image inverts as the film wears on, an evolutionary thought that’s gently encouraged by how slow Stefan is to grab the center of the frame as well, initially seen from behind smoking off the balcony of the skyscraper he’s helping to build, but not viewed from the front until the workday’s over and he’s set to take a four-week vacation.
Or maybe longer, Stefan will readily tell those he comes into contact with before leaving the city. He’s headed home to the suburbs where there may be little awaiting him besides his mother – he learns a childhood friend recently ended up in prison – yet he could envision himself being more of use to someone or something than the feeling of anonymity he’s experienced in Paris where the only thing he considers himself good at is making soup. When clearing out the fridge of every available vegetable, he’s making a statement to himself that a return is unlikely, if only his car, called a “worn-out wreck” by his mechanic, will make the trip and as he awaits it getting a tune-up, he crosses paths with Shuxiu, whose aunt runs a Chinese restaurant he’ll go to for takeout, though the serendipity of a rainy night requires him to dine in.
There’s naturally a hint of romance when “Here” positions Stefan and Shuxiu‘s stories as running parallel to one another, both seen separately talking to themselves when they have no one to share their lives with at the moment. But Devos is interested in something broader than one relationship, with the unexpected personal connection they find as people unlikely to ever meet except by happenstance turning into a comment on the modern world where progress increasingly deprives of human contact. There’s a genuinely inventive thread running throughout in which Stefan has trouble staying awake, exhausted from sleepless nights in which he walks around his neighborhood in search of new discoveries, with his mind returning to the forest where he has not actually been quite yet, while such sights are the daily work of Shuxiu, for whom being in the office seems like a hallucination, feeling out of nature in every way possible. Giving in to what comes most organically may require some deprogramming from what the characters have picked up from their daily routines, but Devos’ refreshing vision offers clarity for them and for an audience in its inviting presentation, suggesting that serenity needn’t only come from an excursion, but could be a way of life.
“Here” will screen at Berlinale on February 20th at 10:30 am at the Zoo Palast 3 & 4, 1 pm at Cubix 7 and 7:30 pm at Zoo Palast 3, 4 & 5.