'Jose': Film Review | Venice 2018

Courtesy of Venice Days
Modest but affectingly melancholy.

A gay 19-year-old Guatemalan living in poverty with his doting mother is forced to consider his life of secrecy in a new light when he falls in love with a young construction worker in Li Cheng's drama.

Director Li Cheng, a U.S. transplant from China, conducted extensive interviews with gay and marginalized youths across Latin America as the foundation for Jose, a reflective drama set in Guatemala about love, loss and queer desire lived in the shadows of a culture defined by crime, violence, macho attitudes, strict religious beliefs and binding family ties. Made with nonprofessional actors in a style beholden to the neorealist tradition, the film compensates for its underfed narrative with a tender observational quality backed by confident visual sense. Its unabashed treatment of gay sex and nudity, which is less about homoeroticism than emotional candor, should help open doors in specialized LGBT platforms.

Jose (Enrique Salanic), 19, lives alone with his mother (Ana Cecilia Mota) in a dingy apartment, the two of them scratching out a living as best they can — she sells sandwiches without a license at street markets around town; he works a busy intersection directing passing motorists to a cheap-eats outlet. The morning farewell they exchange when she sets out each day before dawn is "Be careful," suggesting the dangers that are a part of quotidian life. A preacher on Jose's regular bus route urges passengers to get closer to God, signaling another prevalent thread in the social fabric.

While Jose watches, seemingly with envy, the sweet canoodling of his straight co-workers (Esteban Lopez Ramirez and Jhakelyn Waleska Gonzalez), his search for connection is channeled through a hookup app on his phone. He checks it constantly, whether during his afternoons on the street or when he's alone in bed at night, his face glowing in the screen light. His encounters take place in a flophouse that rents by the hour, the sounds of other couples having sex audible through the thin walls. He lies to his mother about his reasons for coming home late and bringing in less cash.

When he meets Luis (Manolo Herrera), a construction worker from coastal Izabal, also of indigenous descent, a spark gently ignites that's emotional as well as physical. In one delicate postcoital scene, they examine each other's scars; Luis indicates one resulting from a beating when his brothers caught him with another guy from the village. He has a job on a site converting a fire-damaged former luxury hotel into condos (a somewhat pointed metaphor for dreams downgraded by blunt reality, just as a fireworks motif is a tad obvious) and he intends to leave the city when the work runs out.

In a transfixing interlude of beauty and intimacy, Jose borrows a friend's motorbike and he and Luis ride to a remote countryside spot. They steal kisses and caresses along the way, making out in a bamboo field once they get there. Talk of love follows the next time they meet, prompting Luis to ask Jose to go away with him, possibly leaving Guatemala for someplace better. But Jose hesitates, feeling duty-bound to stick by his clingy mother, who is not oblivious to her son's clandestine life. She prays for his protection and forgiveness.

The untrained actors give subdued, convincingly naturalistic performances, though Cheng's presence as director is a little intrusive during the decisive scene between Jose and Luis, when he positions the actors around the room with stagy blocking. The script, co-written with George F. Roberson, becomes more ambling after Jose pays the price for his indecision, but there's a persuasive sorrowful undertow as he waits for Luis at their regular rendezvous point or combs city squares and marketplaces looking for him.

Cheng acknowledges the early Hou Hsiao-Hsien film The Boys From Fengkuei as a key influence. While he doesn't have the Taiwanese master's control, the inspiration is evident in the visual tools used to bring psychological insight to Jose's isolation. Cinematographer Paolo Giron's camera trains its immobile gaze on the protagonist from a distance or follows him up close in tracking sequences through the dense urban sprawl, then later into rural surroundings when he goes to stay with his grandmother (Alba Irene Lemus). Her memories of her husband and thoughts as to why she never remarried prompt Jose to renew his search for Luis, also looking inside himself in a poignant closing scene that takes him to some lonely Mayan ruins.

This is a wisp of a film that for many will lack payoff, but it has a depth of feeling, strong sense of frustration, and hunger for growth and change that heighten involvement. Its sensitive portrait of being young and gay in an unaccommodating culture also makes it deserving of attention.

Cast: Enrique Salanic, Manolo Herrera, Ana Cecilia Mota, Esteban Lopez Ramirez, Jhakelyn Waleska Gonzalez, Alba Irene Lemus
Production company: YQstudio

Director: Li Cheng
Screenwriters: Li Cheng, George F. Roberson
Producers: George F. Roberson, Li Cheng
Director of photography: Paolo Giron
Music: Yao Chen
Editor: Lenz Claure
Sales: YQstudio
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)

85 minutes