Movie Reviews

‘I Hugged the Berlin Patient’: A charming documentary film about taking chances

By Anjali RaguramanMovies - 07 December 2013 12:00 AM | Updated 09 December 2013

‘I Hugged the Berlin Patient’: A charming documentary film about taking chances

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Rating: 3 / 5 

There is a scene in ‘I Hugged the Berlin Patient’ where filmmaker and protagonist Edgar Tang wears a sandwich board with the words, “Do you know who The Berlin Patient is?” in English and German, and walks around a district of Berlin, haplessly looking for someone who can give him an answer. 

Filmmaker Edgar Tang trawling the streets to find "The Berlin Patient"

Like most people who see the sign, the Berliners connect it more with the film ‘The English Patient’ instead. It is one of the many ways that Tang tries to contact "The Patient". The shameless way in which this random Singaporean man walks around this serious German town, facing the quizzical stares of its residents, is a precursor to the humour and irony that flavours much of the film. 

'I Hugged the Berlin Patient' is the story of one man’s journey to hug the first man cured of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the little-known Timothy Brown.

He was named "The Berlin Patient" after the city in which he was cured, after a revolutionary stem cell treatment gave him an entirely new immune system. But while it is about the search for Brown, this docu-film is just as much about Tang’s personal journey and growth.

Timothy Brown was revealed as the mysterious "Berlin Patient" who was cured of HIV

In a post-screening interview with inSing, Tang said that he first heard about Brown on the BBC World Service radio station while driving home one night, "when a short blurb came on about a man who had been cured of HIV". What ensued from that one spark, was a two-year-long journey to find and meet this man, and produce this film. 


With this film, the order of the day is taking chances. Tang drops everything and books a flight to Berlin, Germany with just a few leads and a lot of faith. It's amazing to watch how one thing leads to another, how serendipitous meetings and friends of friends lead him closer and closer to his goal. Along the way, he meets Brown's old friend and even the doctor who treated and cured him. 

At the beginning of the film, Tang’s friend asks him over a Skype conversation, “Why are you pursuing him like a mad man?”. It is symptomatic of the kind of off-the-cuff spontaneity that Tang possesses. And you get the sense that he has a larger calling than just a mad man's pursuit. 

Tang is a cancer survivor himself (he had early stage 3 Hodgkin's lymphoma) and had undergone chemotherapy treatment for six months at the end of 2007. His nervous energy is relatable and captured painstakingly via a multitude of recording devices.

From his webcam confessions to grainy iPhone footage, along with the documentary-style, shaky camerawork, they all make you feel like you’re on the journey with him. 

Tang's candour, zany expressions and unfettered enthusiasm are charming and honest, and they are what carries the film. 


However, the film feels more like a passion project, than a work of cinematic excellence.  

What is baffling was the inclusion of a separate short film made by the filmmakers two years prior in New York, that they tried to weave into the narrative. It was jarring and completely broke the narrative flow of an already compelling story. 

While the short film might have been experimental, it felt indulgent instead of lyrical. 

The entire project gets points for being honest and heartfelt, even lighthearted, when dealing with a subject as heavy as HIV and the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)

There are much larger forces at play in terms of finding a cure for HIV, such as government bodies, pharmaeutical conglomerates and the powers-that-be. But this film is ultimately a reminder to live a little and take chances.

Watch the trailer here:  

'I Hugged the Berlin Patient' is now showing at Cathay Cineplex Cineleisure Orchard