La Salada: Buenos Aires Review

La Salada Film Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Sudestada Cine

La Salada Film Still - H 2014

South Korea, Taiwan, Bolivia and Buenos Aires rubs shoulders with one another in an immigration drama that starts out strong and bristles with good intentions but which succumbs to cliche over its last half hour.

This culture clash criss-crosser set in and around a Buenos Aires market generated good buzz at the city’s recent BAFICI festival.

Asian immigration in Buenos Aires has been given successful commercial treatment (in for example 2012’s A Chinese Story, by Sebastián Borensztein) and edgy arthouse treatment (in Bae Youn Suk’s Do U Cry for me Argentina. 1.5 Generation  (2005). Juan Martin Tsu’s La Salada fits somewhere between the two. A three parter that tells the story of three vulnerables -- a  Korean fiancee, a Taiwanese loner and a Bolivian immigrant respectively --the film brings little new to the party, with identity issues, social exclusion and the generation gap among immigrants very much to the fore as per too many immigration dramas.

But Hsu’s quiet, earnest respect for, and emotional understanding of, its subjects go some way towards keeping the problems in check, suggesting that stronger work is to come. Meanwhile, La Salada should attract some festival play in Spanish-speaking territories.

Kim (Chang Sun Kim), a Korean who moved to Argentina when she was nine, is a stallholder at the massive La Salada market, an authentic Buenos Aires social phenomenon -- and magnet for immigrant labor -- that is used as little more than a backdrop here. His daughter, Yunjin (Yunseon Kim), is to be married to an arranged partner, but is also the object of flirtations from boys including Luciano (Nicolas Mateo): she’s being expected to leap from girlhood to married life without exploring anything in between.

Bruno (Limbert Tacona) and his uncle (Percy Jimenez) are also immigrants, but in this case from Bolivia. After a day or two of hardship, they find work in a restaurant via Yenny (Lisbeth Amparo Villaroel), where Bruno keeps dropping plates.

The most melancholy of the strands belongs to Huang (Ignacio Huang), a lonely La Salada employee who talks to his emotionally distant mother on the phone, watches Argentinian movies late night and hankers after a relationship with single mother Angeles (Paloma Contreras), who ain’t playing. One striking scene has Huang, after watching Martin Rejtman’s groundbreaking teen rebellion movie Shaven, cutting off and dying his hair to turn himself into one of them: unfortunately it makes no difference.

All three stories start out strongly but fail to keep up the momentum, with Huang’s, in particular, suffering in a risible scene in a bar where he meets a Generous Older Woman (Mimi Ardu) who luckily has a thing for South Koreans.

There is perhaps a subtle emotional logic working away beneath the surface of La Salada, but the script doesn’t make it clear. At one point, Kim hires the frankly incompetent Bruno to help him out with his stall -- an incomprehensible decision that until then, Bruno has spent most of his time dropping plates. But wait a minute: given Kim’s daughters’ issues, perhaps Hsu’s script is revealing Kim’s first interest in breaking of out the Korean cultural bubble he inhabits. But then again -- why would he? Thus the script teems with interesting ideas that are not always clearly articulated.

D.P Tebbe Schoningh goes for a that grainy, downbeat look in the interiors, with the camera of getting in good and close for a documentary feel. Huang’s apartment in particular is a monument to grunginess. Some of the exterior shots of the market are by contrast stunningly composed and framed. Certain visual tics, however, start to annoy, such as having character act direct to camera. This generally feels artificial, but one scene using the technique is by some distance the film’s most wrenching, the one featuring Kim virtually breaking down as he sings a nostalgic karaoke.

Indeed, Chang Sun Kim delivers the strongest performance, perhaps because his is the most complex character. Yunseon Kim struggles to escape from the passivity the script has assigned to her, while Ticona feels flat. Despite the script’s no doubt admirable refusal to heighten things for dramatic impact, there’s a lot of implicit drama here which remains unexplored.

Likewise, it was probably a wise move to focus on the characters’ often awkward emotional experiences rather than delivering yet another gritty social drama. But the opportunity for cultural specificity has largely been passed up. What we learn from La Salada is that there a tyrannical parents and that their children have issues which turn them, in Bae Youn Suk’s formulation, into the “1.5 generation”. But that’s something that could be said of many immigrants in many places, and we learn too little about what is unique and particular about the immigrant experience of Koreans, Taiwanese and Bolivians in Argentina.

Music is generally well incorporated, most successfully a rousing piece by French Horn Rebellion that delivers the required emotional punch to a couple of fused scenes, but quite what Phil Collins is doing here in La Salada is anyone’s guess.

Production Sudestada Cine, Nephilim Producciones
Cast: Yunseon Kim (Yunjin), Chang Sun Kim (Kim), Ignacio Huang (Huang), Limbert Ticona (Bruno)
Director, screenwriter: Juan Martin Tsu
Producers: Ignacio Rey, Gaston Rothschild, Hsu, Luis Collar, Jorge Moreno
Director of photography: Tebbe Schoningh
Production designer: Angeles Frinchaboy, Maria Eugenia Tome, Renata Gelosi
Editor: Anita Remon
Music: Diego Polischer
Sound: Nicolas Torchinsky
Wardrobe: Deborah Santiago
Sales: Sudestada Cine
No rating, 91 minutes