'Kokoloko': Film Review | Tribeca 2020

Kokoloko Still 1 - The Match Factory - Publicity-H 2020
Courtesy of The Match Factory
Powerful aesthetics and bold performances trump narrative.

'Miss Bala' director Gerardo Naranjo's Oaxaca-set drama picked up a Tribeca fest acting prize for Noé Hernández's portrayal of a would-be guerrilla who's in love with a younger woman.

[In the wake of the Tribeca festival's postponement this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select fest entries that elected to premiere digitally for critics.]

There's plenty of wild and intimate beauty and not a little blood in Kokoloko, the first feature from Gerardo Naranjo since his 2011 international breakout, Miss Bala. The film reteams the writer-helmer with two actors from that crime thriller, and like the earlier work, this one finds a woman caught in the crosshairs of swaggering, violent machismo. But from its Academy-ratio frame to its hyperlocal milieu and elliptical-bordering-on-opaque story, it's a film that aims for something rougher, narrower and more personal.

Set on the rocky Pacific coast of the Mexican state of Oaxaca, among insular communities and insurgents, Kokoloko pulses with the crash of waves, the flash of machetes, and the heat of naked skin. At its center is a triangle: a young woman who longs for escape, her pathologically possessive cousin, and her older lover, who likes to brandish the guns he's collecting for a group of guerrillas. Emblematically tragic figures, they're brought to more or less full-blooded life by the performers, with particularly striking work by Noé Hernández, who was named best actor in Tribeca's international narrative feature category for his portrayal of would-be revolutionary Mundo.

Shot on 16mm Kodak (by the director and his fellow DP, José Stempa), the movie is intensely concerned with surfaces and textures — not just of the landscape or entwined bodies but of the film stock, with its scratches and pops. Putting aside the role that smartphones and social media play in the feature, it often feels like a dug-up artifact or an unspooling dream. In its setting, idyllic but charged with danger, and in its explicit and apparently unsimulated sex, the movie walks a high-voltage wire. But after a potent first half-hour, the narrative comes alive more fitfully, making Kokoloko easier to admire than to be swept up by.

Alejandra Herrera is memorable as Marisol, who's frustrated by the brutal attention of her cousin Mauro (Eduardo Mendizábal, of Miss Bala), who runs a small business and considers her his property, and by the passiveness and unreliability of her lover, Mundo, who works for Mauro and hasn't the nerve to stand up to him.

Criminal gangs rove the rugged crags of the beach where Marisol waits for Mundo, often in vain. She fantasizes about being a street fighter with him for the guerrilla cause, while he helps the gentlemanly leader of the local resistance (German Gonzalez Jimenez) with his plans to block a major road. That the film's locale, the Pochutla section of Oaxaca, is a commercial hub and a place where road blockage is a common form of protest will be lost on many viewers. But even for those not familiar with the political situation in this part of Mexico, the realities of class strife and limited options come through clearly. Early in the story, Marisol muses in voiceover, "Mundo told me there's no legitimate fortune in these lands."

Her longing for freedom, not to mention the taste of it she enjoys with Mundo, enrages Mauro to the point where he kidnaps her. The barest sliver of backstory surfaces when a cruel woman, apparently Marisol's aunt, spits out, "You're just like your mother." It's a bolt of light on the deeply poisoned family tree that has produced the entitled likes of Mauro, whose abuse extends to incest, and whose self-awareness stops at the highlights in his hair.

Mauro manages to machinate Mundo's exile to the States, although the details of this plot point remain under-explained. What's of chief concern to the story is that Mundo and Mauro face yet another extended period of separation. They communicate through texts and video chats, though "chat" is far too casual a word to describe their lust-fueled bond. Compared with Mauro, Mundo is the embodiment of truth and love, but Marisol is working from an exceedingly narrow universe of possibilities. Hernández, whose credits include Narcos: Mexico and who played a cartel honcho in Miss Bala, is an electrifying presence. From moment to moment, Mundo moves between wiry hunger and sensual languor; he's entranced and alluring, decisive and adrift, and Hernández makes it matter when the character's vitality takes a fateful, twisted turn.

Kokoloko is told in fragments, like bursts of memory. The jagged pieces don't always cohere, and time lags in an unhelpful way in the middle section, rendering the melodrama repetitive and less than involving, the sequence of events vague. As well played as all the characters are, in many ways they feel more like symbols than individuals. Though this limits the story's immediate impact, it has its purpose too. In Marisol there are suggestions of a feminist parable, but certainly she embodies a country and a people at the mercy of vicious and mercenary forces. And maybe too a disenchanted artist.

Naranjo, who shot the film with a small crew in 2016, has been working in episodic television since Miss Bala. The promise of big-screen Hollywood possibilities that greeted his breakthrough work have not so far panned out — on top of which that feature underwent an unfortunate U.S. remake. His English-language debut, a punk-rock road movie starring Evan Rachel Wood, Dakota Fanning and Zoë Kravitz, is completed and in limbo. It sounds enticing. But until Viena and the Fantomes is removed from the shelf and we can see it, Kokoloko, flaws and all, is welcome evidence of a distinctive, risk-taking talent.

Production company: Dinatron
Cast: Alejandra Herrera, Noé Hernández, Eduardo Mendizábal, Alonso Echánove, German Gonzalez Jimenez
Director-screenwriter: Gerardo Naranjo
Producers: Gabriel García Nava, Gerardo Naranjo
Directors of photography: Gerardo Naranjo, José Stempa
Editors: Erick Rodríguez, Gerardo Naranjo
Casting: Isabel Cortázar, Andrea Abbiati
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (International Narrative Competition)
Sales: The Match Factory

In Spanish
106 minutes