'Los hongos': Locarno Review
The sophomore feature from Oscar Ruiz Navia ("Crab Trap") stars Jovan Alexis Marquinez Angulo and Calvin Buenaventura Tascon as two graffiti-artist buddies in Cali, Colombia.
A soon-to-be unemployed graffiti artist literally paints the town red in the opening scene of Los hongos, the funky if slight second feature from Colombian writer-director Oscar Ruiz Navia. This meandering story of two youths in Cali who hang out, tag and paint the walls and then hang out some more is high on atmosphere, has some interesting if not always well-integrated anthropological details and features two entirely naturalistic performances, though it finally feels too inconsequential and aimless to leave much of a mark. After its Locarno world premiere, a smattering of festival invitations should follow.
Los hongos (which literally means “The Mushrooms”) opens on Jovan Alexis (Jovan Alexis Marquinez Angulo), who has moved to the big city with his religious and strict but clearly loving mother (Angela Garcia) from a small black community on the Pacific coast (such as the ones seen in Navia's first feature, Crab Trap, and Jhonny Hendrix Hinestroza’s Choco). By day Jovan works at a construction site, though he’s fired when his superiors find out he takes home paint from the site for his real passion, graffiti and wall paintings. Tellingly, though his mother insists on the importance of a job, the dreamy and introspective youngster doesn’t seem all that concerned about having lost his livelihood.
Jovan Alexis, who goes by the nickname Ras (also his tag), is best buds with Calvin (Calvin Buenaventura), who comes from a middle-class white family and who nominally studies at the city’s School of Fine Arts, though mostly, when he’s not out and about with Ras, he hangs out at the home of his ailing grandmother (Atala Estrada). Calvin’s parents are divorced; he talks to his Mom on Skype and occasionally drops in on his formerly famous singing father (Gustavo Ruiz Montoya). Neither seems particularly interested in what their son is up to, though it's clear from his rapport with granny that he craves love and affection.
Interestingly, while Ras and Calvin come from almost opposite backgrounds, Navia doesn't underline their differences or their similarities and it's not even clear how the two, who live in different neighborhoods, became friends. Instead, Sofia Oggioni Hatty’s loose camera simply follows the protagonists around, which results in a series of semi-connected scenes with no real narrative flow, as Ras and Calvin drift from one place and event to another. This gives the film a baggy, semi-improvised and occasionally almost documentary-like feel.
Jovan also hangs out at Calvin’s grandma’s, occasionally even sleeping over, and there's a moment in the film where one almost expects they'll sleep together for want of some kind of action. Instead, the duo look up online videos of the recent uprising in Egypt for inspiration for a vaguely defined mural project. Since election advertising has also conspicuously flooded the city walls — where Ras makes the politicians' faces disappear under red paint — and TV screens, there’s a sense there’s a wider political context out there, but in true slacker fashion, Ras and Calvin are armchair activists at best, looking for something they can appropriate to keep their work from being entirely devoid of meaning.
Similarly, the motley crew of taggers and artists they finally fall in with — shown in a very long and impressive tracking shot — talk about being "against Babylon" without otherwise ever seeming to do anything overtly political; their most direct action is to fill walls they don’t own with splashes of color. Oddly, when, inevitably, the police show up, Navia, who co-wrote the film with Cesar Augusto Acevedo, focuses not on the boys but on peripheral figures also present at the scene.
There’s thus no real glue that holds the entire film together. A wonderfully observed scene such as an a-cappella song sung by Ras’ mother with some of her girlfriends, or an extended sequence at Sunday Church where a political candidate makes a stop, deliver interesting if tiny bits of insight into life in Colombia (or Cali in particular), but don’t serve any larger narrative needs. Navia is no doubt making a point about how aimless these youngsters seem to be drifting through life, but with a film so understated and directionless itself, it becomes hard to really care about what does — or, as the case may be, doesn’t — happen to these characters.
As can be expected from a film about street artists, the visuals and the music of the film have an agreeably punky, rough-and-tumble kind of vibe.
Production companies: Contravia Films, Burning Blue, Arizona Productions, Campo Cine, Unafilm
Cast: Jovan Alexis Marquinez Angulo, Calvin Buenaventura Tascon, Gustavo Ruiz Montoya, Atala Estrada, Maria Elvira Solis, Dominique Tonnelier, Angela Garcia
Director: Oscar Ruiz Navia
Screenwriter: Oscar Ruiz Navia, Cesar Augusto Acevedo
Producers: Diana Bustamante Escobar, Gerylee Polanco Uribe, Oscar Ruiz Navia
Co-producers: Guillaume de Seille, Nicolas Avruj, Titus Kreyenberg
Director of photography: Sofia Oggioni Hatty
Production designer: Daniela Schneider, Alejandro Franco
Costume designer: Ana Maria Acosta
Editor: Felipe Guerrero
Composers: La llegada del dios Rata, Zalama Crew, Sebastian Escofret
Sales: Figa Films USA
No rating, 103 minutes