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Three decades after unknown film-student Spike Lee unveiled Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, writer-director Juan Andrés Arango emerges straight outta Bogotá with his own auspicious, tonsorially-themed debut La Playa D.C. Focusing on a teenage apprentice barber coping with the city’s forbiddingly mean streets, it’s a minutely-observed peek into hardscrabble lives that pours intoxicatingly fresh aguardiente into a rather dusty old bottle. Plentiful festival play should flow from its Un Certain Regard premiere at Cannes, cementing Arango as Colombia’s most notable cinematic export since Oscar-nominated actress Catalina Sandino Moreno.
While Sandino Moreno‘s breakthrough vehicle Maria Full of Grace was officially a Colombian-American co-production, it was directed by California’s Joshua Marston. South America’s most northerly country has long kept a very low international profile in terms of moviemaking: the most prominent current Colombian-born director, Rodrigo García (Albert Nobbs), has carved his career almost exclusively in the US.
Arongo, a 35-year-old native-born Bogotano, trained and worked in Canada and the Netherlands before returning home to shoot his debut feature in the high-altitude city. Indeed, the unique geography of this chaotic metropolis – sprawling concrete encircled by lushly damp verdant hills – is a major element in its impact, evocatively rendered by cinematographer Nicolás Canniccioni via a chilly color-palette of cobalt blues, mossy greens and asphalt grays.
Teenage brothers Tomas (Luis Carlos Guevara), Jairo (Andrés Murillo) and Chaco (James Solis) have fled to the capital from their formerly-idyllic home on the country’s western seaboard, driven out by the civil war which claimed the life of their father. Chaco has spent time in “el Norte” – the USA – and has returned sporting the latest ghetto-fabulous fashions and hairstyles. Jairo is is tearaway of the trio, forever falling foul of dangerous foes. Quietly-spoken Tomas, a lanky lad who looks much older than his 13 years, recognizes that he’s going to need a trade if he’s to have any chance of a decent life. And as Afro-Colombian males favor massively intricate braided designs – painstakingly executed with clippers and razor-blades – there’s no shortage of work for a lad with a steady hand and a degree of artistic flair.
Arango’s screenplay is a familiar enough coming-of-age chronicle, in which Tomas embarks on his first serious romance while prematurely buckling down to responsibility – under the amusingly stern eye of his barbershop mentors – and keeping tabs on his wayward siblings. Painful bonds of fraternal love are unfussily celebrated this generally downbeat but humor-flecked journey around the male-dominate city-within-a-city that comprises the title’s Playa D.C. – i.e. the ironically-named “beach” of Colombia’s “capital district” or Distrito Capital.
Almost every scene is scored by hip-hop music – often with a distinctive Indio twist – in a picture whose soundtrack is seamlessly integrated with the tunes blasting out of the characters’ own radios and disc-players, often with lyrics that exude a hard-knock, hard-won optimism (“life’s a daily struggle – but we get by. / Life isn’t easy – but we manage”). The US-influenced rhythms of Tomas’s soundscapes thus contribute to the pervasive tang of unpretentious authenticity that elevates La Playa D.C. above the general run of urban-ethnographic world cinema.
Bottom line: Closely-observed Colombian coming-of-ager introduces the latest bold directorial talent from Latin America.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 23, 2012.
Production companies: Cine Sud Promotion, Bananeira Films, Hangar Films
Cast: Luis Carlos Guevara, Andrés Murillo, James Solís
Director / Screenwriter: Juan Andrés Arango
Producers: Diana Bustamante, Jorge Andrés Botero
Co-producers: Thierry Lenouvel, Vania Catani, Angelisa Stain, Mauricio Aristizábal
Director of photography: Nicolás Canniccioni
Art director: Juan David Bernal
Costume designer: Angelica Perea
Music: Erick Bongcam, Jacobo Vélez, María Mulata, Socavón de Timbiqui, Diocelino Rodriguez, Flaco Flow & Melanina, Choquibtown, Jiggy Drama
Editor: Felipe Guerrero
Sales Agent: Doc & Film International, Paris
No rating, 89 minutes.
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