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Thread: JOSÉ ( Li Cheng 2018)

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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    JOSÉ ( Li Cheng 2018)

    LI CHENG: JOSÉ (2018)


    Young, gay, and poor in Guatemala

    In this film that won the 2018 Queer Lion at its Venice debut and many other subsequent festival notices, a young gay man, José (Enrique Salanic), lives in poverty with his devout Catholic mother (Ana Cecilia Mota) in Guatemala City where they both sell fast food on the street. Or rather, he runs after cars chasing curbside sales for a restaurant he works for with a paternalistic disapproving boss (Cesar Lorenzo Yojcom Candido) and a lovey-dovey couple (Esteban Lopez Ramirez and Jhakelyn Waleska Gonzalez) working inside. For José, it's a difficult, high energy job: it often looks like he may get run over. His mom rises early in the morning to spend the day hawking sandwiches on the sidewalk, moving around because she is unlicensed.

    Thanks to the internet, smart phones, and sexual hookup apps, José does not pine in repressed solitude as did gay men of yore. He has a whole busy (semi) hidden life of nightly - or for that matter full daytime - encounters (in a cheap hotel with rooms by the hour) where he connects with men for sex via the local Grinder equivalent. But the society does not favor this lifestyle. José's economic level does not favor it. And his evangelical Christian Catholic mom is mortified by it, though in her love for him she tries to forgive him and look the other way.

    Complication to José's love life swiftly arrives, in the first ten minutes of the film, when José meets and for the first time perhaps, falls for someone. He is Luis (Manolo Herrera), a young gay construction worker originally from from coastal Izabal, who also falls for him. Theyform a more serious connection, meeting regularly. But when Luis declares his love and proposes that they move away together, perhaps outside Guatemala, José lacks the courage and independence to go that far, or leave his mother. Ultimately this is a story of mom issues. José may resent his religious mother's clutches - she constantly prays for him when he's out late, knowing but not understanding what he's up to - but he cannot escape them.

    José's basic plot-line is conventional and unadventurous in its treatment of youthful gay experience. But in detail it still feels fresh and even radical, while connected too with neorealist tradition traced by one reviewer back to Robert Flaherty. Its style is an up-to-date, precise neorealism attentive to the full social context of its microcosm while gritty and sensual about its central gayness. José first appears in the tiny poorly-lit dwelling where he lives with his mom. When he's not there at night, she's in semi-darkness scrubbing clothes (of which they have so few) and praying aloud for God to forgive and protect him. But outdoors José stands in the sunlight in medium range shots that fit him (or him and Luis) into the crowded streets. The film excels at keeping the whole poor urban context as real and alive as its protagonist but not letting its "ethnographic" eye blind its queer eye.

    The sex between the two young men is convincing and exudes at first a startling sense of sensuous excitement and pleasure. There's very little dialogue and none is needed to show how much they enjoy each other's bodies and company. When José takes Luis on a motorcycle trip into the country, an emotional and visual highlight, they're both all smiles as Luis touches José all over from the seat behind him, head, hands, crotch. The trip ends with engine trouble and neither of them having enough quetzales for a repair. When the car trouble talk comes the camera is far away watching them off in the distance on a bridge.

    After José fails to commit, Luis pulls away and the script by Cheng and co-writer George F. Roberson begins to meander. José visits old meeting places or public squares looking for Luis. He gets into a fight playing pickup soccer, exhibiting his bad mood and his athletic side. The city takes over more as the camera withdraws further showing José lost in it, or dp Paolo Giron tracks José through crowds. In one renewed hookup, José is with a man who's better off and invites him to come live with him in his roomy flat with its nice view, offering to support him so he can go back to school, or study dancing, do whatever he wants. But José just says he doesn't know what he wants. José goes to the country to visit his abuela (Alba Irene Lemus) who seems to regret not remarrying. This leads him to redouble his search for Luis, ending, however, in a lonely trip to Mayan ruins.

    All this unresolved stuff explains why David Lodge in his Hollywood Reporter review would call this a "wisp of a film," noting the Chinese-born, American-resident Cheng's acknowledged debut to Hou Hsiao-hsien's Boys from Fengkuei but also that he hasn't quite "the Taiwanese master's control."

    Behind the script's many elements lie several years of study and interviewing in Guatemala and other Latin American countries by Cheng and his collaborator Roberson exploring young people's goals, ideals, and pleasures. Their investigations may have ranged too wide to be satisfactorily expressed through the life of one gay 19-year-old of limited means. The best part remains the disarming intimacy expressed by the two first-time actors, though the fully embraced setting is very welcome and interesting. Rooney also acknowledges a "depth of feeling," "strong sense of frustration" and "hunger for growth and change" felt in José that combine to "heighten [our] involvement," and and concludes that it's a movie worth watching. I agree.

    José, 85 mins., in Spanish, debuted at Venice, winning the Queer Lion, subsequently receiving many other awards and nominations at an additional 20 international festivals. US theatrical release began Jan. 31, 2020. It starts at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco Mar. 13. Metascore: 75%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-19-2020 at 10:04 PM.


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