Jun 212012

Stories of returning soldiers readjusting to life after war have become so ubiquitous in cinema that they perhaps deserve their own sub-genre.  What is different about Him, Here After, though, is that the conflict which its nameless protagonist has survived is one rarely featured in film and is perhaps therefore unfamiliar to western audiences – despite having lasted for 26 years and ending only in 2009 – for the plot concerns the return of a defeated LTTE soldier to his home town following the end of the Sri Lankan civil war.

Writer and director Asoka Handagama effectively conveys the crippling sense of alienation experienced by the central character (Dharshan Dharmaraj), as a man who has only ever known war returning home to begin a new life as a civilian.  Unable to find a job, and receiving by turns silence and abuse from the people he thought he was fighting for, his sense of resignation, resentment and ultimately paranoia grows unabated.  Gainful employment and a reunion with his childhood sweetheart soon bring the promise of stability, but it isn’t long before recognition of his particular ‘talents’ results in his being drawn into the burgeoning criminal underworld of postwar Sri Lanka.  When the wife of the man whose job he has stolen begins to follow him like a shadow, his fragile contentment begins to unravel with alarming speed.

The subject matter is perhaps controversial for Handagama  (he is Sinhalese rather than Tamil) but he handles it expertly, and care and attention are evident in every lingering shot despite the obviously small budget.  The jumpy editing employed gives the film an almost dreamlike quality, but the socio-political message of Him, Here After is clear. Dharmaraj’s veteran represents all former Tamil Tigers trying to find their place in a new world, wondering why, despite their best efforts, the war has followed them home.  The old LTTE commanders he knew have found a new calling as gangsters and smugglers, still running – as he sees it – a similar racket; duping young men into joining their cause, though now that cause is even more morally questionable.  When your life has been shaped by violence for so long, asks Handagama, how can you find peace in peacetime?  As one former LTTE officer puts it towards the end of the film, “there are no new lives, only the opportunity to start our old ones anew.”

For the most part, Him, Here After is a riveting account of postwar tensions and personal alienation, and is undoubtedly a thematic triumph.  The wife of the protagonist’s predecessor, dogging his footsteps throughout the second half of the film, is at first a symbol of his personal ghosts, haunting him for his past crimes.  By the end of the film, though, she has become a symbol for Sri Lanka itself after the war; battered and bruised, but – crucially – still alive.  Viewed through this lens, the ending Handagama offers us has a measure of closure, but in narrative terms it remains infuriatingly ambiguous.  These characters may act as symbols, but they are also individuals, and by denying us a resolution to their personal journeys, Him, Here After leaves us with an uncomfortable sense of uncertainty.

Jim Taylor, geekzine correspondent, reporting from the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2012


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