THE STORY – Stefan, a migrant construction worker living in Brussels, is planning a trip home to his mother in Romania. In preparing for his voyage, he reconnects with local family members over gifted bowls of homemade soup, interacts with strangers, and discovers a revivifying commune with nature. This all leads him to an unexpected connection with Shuxiu, a Chinese-Belgian bryologist, who’s studying the local moss.
THE CAST – Stefan Gota, Liyo Gong & Teodor Corban
THE TEAM – Bas Devos (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 97 Minutes
Chance encounters are common events to us all, but once in a while, there’s a chance for that one moment that leads us down a path that could forever change our lives. That’s the situation here for two solitary souls lost in their own very different worlds whose chance encounter might…just might…lead to the kind of connection that’s been sorely missing for each. With “Here,” director Bas Devos has created just such a special moment in a film that’s one of those rare movie experiences: a film that is serene, yet at the same time compelling.
“Here,” a double prize winner at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, is Devos’s fourth feature film, and despite his relatively short filmography, he has already demonstrated a rare talent for finding meaning in the ordinary by creating characters who communicate as much by what they don’t say as when they do. It’s a kind of cinema of ellipsis, so to speak, that’s raised to a new level with “Here,” where even the smallest gesture can communicate the deepest of emotions.
Stefan (Stefan Gota), a construction worker in Brussels, is about to go on holiday back to Romania to visit his family. Thinking seriously about not returning, he cleans out his refrigerator and uses all the leftover vegetables to make a pot of soup, which he plans to offer his friends as a goodbye gift. It is Stefan’s journey from friend to friend that becomes the narrative through-line for “Here.” In another part of Brussels, a Chinese doctorate student, Shuxiu (Liyo Gong), hunches over a microscope and focuses intently on her work. As a bryologist — an expert in the study of moss and lichen — Shuxiu lives as intently in her world centered around nature as Stefan does in his, working in man-made buildings. Devos tells their stories on parallel tracks, with one life seeming to be the polar opposite to the other.
One trait they do share is that their minds rarely seem to be at rest, with Stefan’s insomnia, in particular, prompting him to take a nightly walk through the deserted streets of Brussels. On a rare daytime walk, Stefan is caught in a heavy rainstorm while distributing his soup gifts, forcing him to seek shelter (and dinner) at a local restaurant. There, he has a chance encounter with Shuxiu (who’s helping out at her family’s business), and for several minutes, smiles, gestures, and just a few words are enough for these two individuals to realize that there just might be a spark there.
Fate can be a serendipitous thing, however, and what it has in store for this couple is a second-chance meeting, this time in a city glen where Shuxiu is hard at work in her nature world, which she is happy to introduce to Stefan. It is in this remarkable third-act reunion where “Here” really takes off, with Devos’s delicate style coming to the fore. Throughout the film, he has slowly narrowed the couple’s world so that Act 3 is at its core just two people in a park, and the box-like Academy ratio in which “Here” is shot allows us to focus on the two characters dominating the frame as they draw closer together.
Impressive as well are the fine details in the cinematography by Grimm Vandekerckhove, particularly in his close-ups of moss that are so striking that one can easily share Shuxiu’s obsession with them. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t single out Boris Debackere’s evocative sound design, particularly in that climactic third act, where the wind and the rustle of leaves are so pronounced that they act as a third character in the scene.
Of the cast, both actors knew the assignment and got it right. Gong, a first-time actor who’s a film editor in real life, exudes intelligence in her every scene while slowly revealing a yearning for someone in her life to whom she can give love. As Stefan, Gota makes for a strikingly attractive lead, torn between his desire to return to a simpler life back home and the sudden possibility of someone special coming into his life in the big city.
What is basically a two-hander love story that’s only 82 minutes in length might be dismissed by some as a slight throwaway of a film, but as Devos has shown, it’s what you put into those 82 minutes that counts. With “Here,” he has created a moving portrait of two solitary people and their enjoyment of living in the moment together, and there’s nothing slight about that.