José movie review: Li Cheng tells a simple story with heart and a generous amount of craft

Anupam Kant Verma

Jun 20, 2019 17:52:40 IST


Rating: 3.5 (out of 5 stars)

Language: Spanish

José is a quiet, tenderly crafted tale of love and longing in Guatemala City. In competition in the Narrative Features category at the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, it also won the Queer Lion at the 75th Venice Film Festival. Director Li Cheng wastes little time in declaring the film’s devotion to its 19-year-old protagonist. The moment José wakes up in a small, dimly lit room to head out for the day, Cheng sets the template for the rest of the film. From the cinematography and production design to editing, the fundamental elements of the film will mimic the inner life of our protagonist. We will witness the world ebb and flow around him, but he will not be its centre. Instead, this reserved young man living alone with his mother in the poorer part of the city will be pulled hither-thither by the tides of love and life. But Cheng and his camera will follow him dutifully, taking pains to avoid encroaching upon his private space.

José movie review: Li Cheng tells a simple story with heart and a generous amount of craft

Photo credit: screenshot from trailer.

José (Enrique Salanic) works for a restaurant at a busy intersection in the city. He guides drivers towards the restaurant and brings them their food. He passes his time by arranging hookups through dating apps. A seedy hotel room that charges by the hour is his place of preference. The simple rhythm of his life is altered when he meets Luis (Manolo Herrera). He realises he wants Luis more and more and begins to fall in love with him. In a deeply religious country where homosexuality remains taboo, a romance blossoms and withers over the course of the film. Luis asks José to come away with him; away from the city, to a better, simpler life. When José declines, Luis vanishes, and our protagonist begins a journey to track him down.

José impresses with the way it maintains a respectful distance from its protagonist even while it peers into his most intimate moments. Shorn of any pretences to a ballistic plot, it finds beauty and illumination within the quiet life of its young protagonist. The viewer is encouraged to try and figure out the goings-on inside José’s mind. For he speaks little, and when he does, he prefers to talk about what can and needs to be done, keeping his feelings to himself.

In this scenario, the visual language employed by Cheng ensures that we don’t have to strain our ears to hear José’s heartbreak. That is sometimes its undoing as well. For each ably calibrated scene that drowns rooms in shadows, there are others where the blocking of actors seems too contrived and the play of light too deliberate. This can appear particularly grating when the actors are non-professionals. But these missteps are few and far between. Cheng’s devotion to gently unfolding the vistas of José’s mind through visual and aural representation within a loosely neo-realistic framework succeeds most of the time. The symbols he uses can appear cliché – like fireworks, for instance – but the overall earnest nature of the film and its visual grammar keeps it interesting.

At the end of the day, the film belongs to José. It is about him growing up and getting over things. Maybe I’m wrong, but I noticed a hint of the young protagonist from Pasolini’s Accattone in José’s strong, resilient face. Salanic brings a refreshing mixture of strength and vulnerability to his portrayal of José. One also feels that the strength, often drawn from traditional notions of masculinity, results in his clearly visible vulnerability. At its best moments, his face shifts between these two poles as visibly as the light and shadow in the film’s cinematography. Cheng and Salanic successfully create a map of the film’s emotional narrative through images and faces. Therefore, it hardly comes as a surprise when Cheng doffs his hat towards In the Mood for Love, the Wong Kar-wai classic, right at the end.

It is always refreshing and sobering to come across a film like José, a simple story told with heart and a generous amount of craft that never fails its protagonist or the deep well of earnestness it draws life from. You sit back in the soft cushion of your seat in the theatre and witness time passing by on screen, gently brushing the hair on the protagonist’s head as it goes. José seems like a film that set out to observe life instead of showing it. And when it works, you feel less like an audience member and more a participant in the life of the film.

Updated Date: Jun 20, 2019 18:02:25 IST