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Thread: JOSÉ ( Li Cheng 2018)

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    Jul 2002
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    JOSÉ ( Li Cheng 2018)

    LI CHENG: JOSÉ (2018)


    Being young, gay, and poor in Guatemala

    This little film was to have opened at the Roxie in San Francisco two weeks ago, but due to the cononavirus, it was cancelled. Here is a report on it anyway. José is a small gem of compassionate neorealism that considers what it might be like to be young and gay in a poor, macho, Catholic Latin American country - Guatemala. Compared to the early neorealist triumphs of Roberto Rossellini, José leaves you a little flat. On the other hand, it shows us a slice of reality never depicted on screen. And considering its frank depiction of gay sex, it's pretty bold.

    Li Cheng is a bit of a mystery man. He came from mainland China to the United States eleven years ago and now describes himself as "a world nomad since 2015." José is the result of a nomadic episode in Guatemala. How does that work, exactly? He reportedly did "extensive interviews" with "marginalized" youth in Latin America as preparation for this film. Did Cheng find his two young actors using the local equivalent of Grindr (the gay pickup app)? Check out an interview with the director and see.

    José (Enrique Salanic) lives with his mother (Ana Cecelia Mota ) in Guatemala City. They are poor, though not so poor that she doesn't have a decent gas stove. She sells the pupusas she makes on it in the morning on the street, though by the end, the police have outlawed this activity in that district. José's job is chasing street deliveries to cars from a fast food restaurant. It's good exercise. He has to outrun other hawkers doing the same job. He also has an abusive boss. There's a cute young straight couple at the workplace, Monica (Jhakelyn Waleska Gonzalez Gonzalez) and Carlos (Esteban Lopez Ramirez), who seem romantic. José suggests to Carlos that he and Monica might marry, but he'll have none of it: too soon. Sounds wise. Unfortunately, Carlos disappears when Monica gets pregnant, an episode that feels on the illustrative side.

    What's briefly more heartfelt is the encounter of José and Luis (Manolo Herrera), a young construction worker José has found in his Grindr explorations. They meet repeatedly at a flophouse that rents rooms by the hour, not very romantic, but they enjoy it, and keep meeting. It soon emerges that José's mama has a tight hold on him, as their enthusiastic Catholicism has a hold on her, and, no doubt, homophobic hints from the priest. José and Luis recognize they are in love. Luis wants to leave the country, for more or less anywhere, with José. But José can't leave mama.

    A simple, explicit dialogue scene between Luis and José lays it out: if José can't join him, he's out of here. "This is shit," says Luis.

    The film's quiet emotional high point comes when José takes Luis on a day outing to the country on a borrowed motorcycle. The film's most sexy, playful sequence shows Luis riding behind José on the bike, his hands exploring in all directions, José smiling. It's a happy, genuine moment. Later, the motorcycle breaks down and José's cell phone battery runs out, but they don't really care.

    Mama's reaction to José's long absences with Luis is to worry, do washing, and pray for God to protect her son. She even approaches Luis's mother and tells her her son is leading hers astray and violating the teachings of her priest.

    From here on, though the intensely authentic feel of all the scenes never dissipates, the energy rather goes out of this little picture because it seems to have nowhere narratively to go. José has sex with a somewhat older and better off man who shows off his nice apartment with a high ceiling and a view. It used to be part of a luxury hotel. It's half paid for. He likes José, invites him to move in and, with his support, go back to school or study dance, whatever he wants. They could grow old together: it's a serious, heartfelt but also practical offer. José, who is only 19, says he doesn't know what he wants - and that's the end of it. Later, in a pickup soccer game, José gets in a fight. His mom is robbed at night. José gets drunk, sleeps through an earthquake, his mom can't sell her papusa any more.

    In the last segment, José goes to visit his abuela (Alba Irene Lemus) in the country. She's not an old granny (she probably had José's miom when she was quite young - but a plump woman who smokes, and tells José, at his request, about how her husband walked out on her and never returned. It's an offhanded, lighter version of the story of Pedro Costa's Vitalina Varela. Going home, after fruitlessly showing Luis's photo and asking for him, because this is near where he came from and he might have gone back here, José goes to a Mayan site he hears about from a handsome guy on the bus. He "stares down" a Mayan statue, looks pensive and soulful, and hitches a ride on a motorcycle back to the bus, and that's the end.

    None of these episodes after the disappearance of Luis really has the same emotional force, though there is no harm in the film's leaving José in limbo. The whole focus is on the circumstances. We see a significant change in the world of conservative Latin America brought about by gay apps, and by awareness of the greater world. A whole world of gay sex has been brought to life by smart phones. But the sophisticated world that coexists with retro, ultra-religious thinking isn't accessible to those without money or education. Li Cheng has vividly brought all this to life. We can't blame Cheng if the film lacks flair or narrative thrust. It has an intense grip on poor urban spaces.

    José, 85 mins., debuted at Venice, where it was awarded the Queer Lion. It subsequently has shown in dozens of festivals. It was reviewed originally in Variety by David Rooney, who called it "modest but affectingly melancholy." A US theatrical release took place Jan. 31, 2020 at Quad Cinema in New York. Despite having traveled widely, star Enrique Satanic was denied entry into the US to promote the opening, according to Screen Daily. Metascore 75%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-28-2020 at 07:54 PM.


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