Thursday, September 30, 2010

TIFF 2010—The Evening Class Interview With Programmer Diana Sanchez

This was the first year—more than any other year I've attended the Toronto International—that its signature as a programmers festival seemed especially pronounced, which drew my attention to how the festival lineup has been selected, shaped and promoted largely through curatorial taste and whether, indeed, it could be accomplished any other way? As Mark Peranson has asserted in his introduction to the current issue of Cinema Scope, the preoccupation by "a certain bored segment of the film world today" with "the relationship between programming and film criticism" enforces his general instincts "that the two are one and the same." I'm inclined to agree and—though perhaps suffering less from ennui than Peranson on this topic, angling in by way of film festival studies rather than film criticism, and largely based on the pleasant conversation I had with Diana Sanchez at last year's TIFF—I decided to structure my own "microfestival" this year by exploring the curatorial instincts of three of TIFF's veteran programmers: Diana Sanchez, Colin Geddes and Kate Lawrie Van de Ven. For myself, this was quite a different approach to the festival—I'm usually chasing auteurs, national cinemas or the annointed darlings from Cannes, Venice and Locarno—and it took a measure of trust to surrender myself to the curatorial (i.e., critical) sensibility of three individuals and to limit my festival experience to their selections; but, it seemed a fair experiment. For me, it was a different way to understand the festival.

TIFF is also one of the few festivals I'm aware of—within my limited festival experience—where the program capsules have been written and signed off by the programmers who have selected the films. Naturally, the purpose of a program capsule has an administrative specificity and TIFF's capsules are no less obsessively promotional and adulatory than any other festival I've ever attended. If I were to believe every word I read, every film boasts a brand new vision and every introduced filmmaker is a brand new auteur, and such has been the Faustian pact with festival marketing for longer than I can remember. Devil be damned, however, James Quandt has conservatively argued with a wry raised eyebrow that there can only be 10 great films a year, if that. So there you have it. Caught between the Devil and an endless blue sea.

Over the years as I've honed the practice of festival attendance, I've learned to maintain a certain resistance to what I've been promised, to nonetheless appreciate how it has been promised to me, and—perhaps most importantly—by whom. As someone who is interested in the art and craft of programming, I enjoy discerning signature elements of personal taste hidden in plain sight between the lines of a program capsule. My festival experience will either chafe against or gladly embrace these paragraphs of curatorial enthusiasm (sleight of hand?), and I set about to further adjust my experience by indulging directorial intent (admittedly, authorial self-promotion) by conversing directly with filmmakers. Finally, over a second cup or twobeer or a shared meal, I mix it all up with the received wisdom and unrestrained opinions of my colleagues wherein taste is either distilled to consensus (call it an uneasy truce) or remains rebelliously idiosyncratic. And of course, it always comes down to my own personal taste: what I do and do not like; that final sober arbiter.

As extolled at TIFF's website: "Diana Sanchez is an International Programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, responsible for introducing audiences to the best in Latin American cinema.

"The year after she joined the Festival in 2002, she programmed the Festival's spotlight on Brazil, Vida de Novo. Sanchez subsequently programmed two surveys of Argentine Cinema for TIFF Cinematheque, in 2004 and 2006. Also in 2006, she programmed a week of Cuban cinema at the Royal Ontario Museum.

"Sanchez is currently a programme consultant for the International Film Festival Rotterdam and has been involved in a variety of other festivals and cinematic presentations. In 2010 she programmed Calgary Latin, a selection of eight Latin American films, with the PROA Foundation in Argentina. In 2007 Sanchez was on the Ecuadorian Ministry of Culture Film Fund jury and in 2008 was on the first Premiera Copia jury at the Havana Film Festival. She has also been a jury member for the script development fund at the Colombian Ministry of Culture."

I was delighted to have the opportunity to sit down and catch up with her current selections as inflected through my current interests.

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Michael Guillén: Diana, our conversation last year had an influence on—not only enhancing my appreciation of the films you selected for that edition of the festival—but, my understanding of curatorial taste in general. We spoke some about your method for selecting films for the festival and how you hoped they would represent the best of each country's national cinema(s). After the fact, certain colleagues of mine took objection to that statement. They argued, "How can she know what is the best of any national cinema?" Which provoked me to wonder: at what point does the primacy of personal taste enter into your selection of films?

Diana Sanchez: Personal taste is obviously going to affect a programmer's vision; but, that's not only what's involved because I do show films that aren't really within my personal taste but that I think will work with an audience. I try to balance that with what I think is interesting in cinema: filmmakers who are taking risks or filmmakers who are good storytellers. It's a difficult question. More what I meant by "best" was that I try to find the best 18 films that I can find; but—how to define "best"?—that's a difficult question obviously. As a programmer, I try to find films that are well-told; that are well-made. It's like when you're reading a novel, you can tell which writer has more craftsmanship than another.

Guillén: Do you have a literary preference towards narrative film?

Sanchez: I do not. My big thing now is this new genre that I'm seeing in films like Alamar, Crab Trap, and the films of Lisandro Alonso, José Luis Guerín, Miguel Gomes: this new genre which is a mix of documentary and fiction with a real sense of play between these two forms. I find that hybrid fascinating.

Guillén: So you mentioned you're looking for the best 18 films you can find, is that an allotment you're given as a TIFF programmer?

Sanchez: Yes, I'm given an allotment of 18 films.

Guillén: So your task is to go out and discover 18 films that you think will work for any given year?

Sanchez: That's right.

Guillén: Since "best" is such a nebulous term, let's approach another term which I've heard bandied about lately: "contemporary." Can you speak to what is a "contemporary" Latin American, Spanish or Portuguese film? Do you have a sense of that?

Sanchez: It's an interesting question. I've actually wondered what that is myself. Would an example be this new genre I'm talking about? Sometimes when people talk about contemporary cinema, I wonder if they're talking about subject matter? Or a matter of form?

Guillén: I bring it up because—though I am delighted in what I believe to be one of TIFF's strongest line-ups since I've been coming to the festival—there are, on the other hand, the inevitable detractors who argue, "No, it's not a strong line-up. The program is being padded with too many contemporary films." As valid a criticism as that might be, I still have no sense of what is meant by such a complaint because I'm not sure how the term "contemporary" is being used. I'm forced to question what "contemporary" means when used to describe a film, especially when it's used to dismiss a film, and I'm not sure there's even an answer to that question, let alone any consensual definition of the term.

Sanchez: A lot of people use that term "contemporary" to describe the subject matters that films are dealing with, which—for me, I would have to agree—are sometimes not the most interesting films to see.

Guillén: Another criticism levied against TIFF's program this year—aimed particularly at the City to City program—has been concern over the loss of national cinema retrospectives, which TIFF explored in past editions. But, for me, that's a concern that must necessarily address the changing face of national cinemas, especially factoring in financing and co-production. Within your domain of Latin American programming, let's say, where films exist only through the combined financing of several countries, what for you at this time determines a national cinema? Is it the content? Is it the nationality of the director? Is it the lead financier?

Sanchez: That's also another question I've asked myself as well. I do go by director. There's two great examples in this year's festival that address this complicated issue. There's Lope, a Spanish film directed by Brazilian director Andrucha Waddington with a Spanish cast about a Spanish playwright Lope de Vega. And then there's Biutiful, which has a mostly Spanish cast shot by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu in Barcelona. I look at Biutiful as a Mexican-Spanish co-production and I look at Lope as a Spanish-Brazilian co-production. So the lines are being crossed. If I were programming a retrospective on Spain, I would include Biutiful. If I were programming a retrospective on Mexico, I would include Biutiful. The film can fit both. They're both very Spanish films but the topics are different.

Guillén: My premise is that the concept of the national cinema is becoming increasingly elastic.

Sanchez: It is. But then there's films like Marimbas From Hell, which is a Guatemalan-Mexican-French co-production; but, that's a Guatemalan film. It's an absolutely Guatemalan story, a Guatemalan director, and you can feel Central America within that film.

Guillén: So is it safe to say then that a national cinema can be defined by its cultural sensibility, irregardless of external financing?

Sanchez: Yes, a cultural sensibility is important to defining a national cinema.

Guillén: This year I've shaped my festival itinerary to include approximately 10 of the 18 films you've programmed for the festival so I'm hoping we can, perhaps, briefly touch upon those films and then add mention of those I'm not able to catch?

Sanchez: Okay.

Guillén: You've already touched upon the Guatemalan entry Marimbas From Hell. I caught Julio Hernández Cordón's first film Gasolina at the San Francisco International and so I'm curious to see if he has matured as a filmmaker? Do you see a maturation in his work?

Sanchez: Absolutely. Marimbas is a more mature work than Gasolina. It's playful. It's funny. It's melancholic. Cordón has taken characters he's known within Guatemala and meshed them together to create a whole new story that really gives you a sense of the place.

Guillén: Federico Vieroj's A Useful Life from Uruguay? What will we be seeing there?

Sanchez: It's a black and white film, 67 minutes, in two parts. The first part is about a cinematheque in Uruguay and a man who has been working there daily for 25 years. It's also funny. You can tell that the director has great in-depth knowledge of what it's like to work at a film museum. Lack of funding leads to the closure of the cinematheque and then he finds himself without a job. It's about dealing with life without cinema. A Useful Life is an homage to cinema but also a lament for lesser public investment in important institutions like cinematheques.

Guillén: Pablo Trapero's Carancho?

Sanchez: Carancho is a mix of genres. It's a noir; but, it's also a social issues story and at its heart it's a love story. So Trapero mixes a lot of genres in there. I saw it at Cannes and really liked it; but, not everyone agrees with me.

Guillén: I'm intrigued that you would characterize Carancho as a noir. What are the elements that you see in it that lead you to characterize it as a noir?

Sanchez: Stylistic elements. It focuses on the underbelly of Argentine life, especially the corrupt economy surrounding traffic accidents.

Guillén: Julia's Eyes, Guillem Morales's sophomore feature?

Sanchez: It's a horror movie.

Guillén: Is it a true horror movie or more a ghost story?

Sanchez: It's like The Invisible Man.

Guillén: Is it similar to the work of Juan Antonio Bayona?

Sanchez: Yes, it has a similar feel to The Orphanage; but, it has a bit more gore in it. It's by the same production team that made The Orphanage: Guillermo del Toro, etc. It's about a woman who is losing her eyesight and starts to sense an invisible man. The question is whether there really is an invisible man or not. I was terrified.

Guillén: Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia For the Light? Does this fall within that fictionalized documentary hybrid category you were referencing earlier?

Sanchez: It kind of does; but, it's more a classic essay documentary. It's about astronomers in the Atacama Desert peering into space trying to figure out the mysteries of the universe of the past. At the same desert, you have these women sifting through the sand looking for the remains of the disappeared. Guzmán is asking, "Why, in a country where we can look billions of years into the past, do we turn our backs on and not see what happened 40 years ago?" It's quite impressive.

Guillén: Michael Rowe's Leap Year; a Cannes award winner?

Sanchez: It's crazy. A very dark sadomasochistic love affair. As you say, it won the Camera d'Or at Cannes.

Guillén: This has been a great year for Peruvian cinema and I was pleased to see that you included Daniel and Diego Vega's October among your 18. Can you speak to why you chose that film? I presume they're a brother team?

Sanchez: Y'know, it's funny; but, I try not to include too many Cannes films; but, it was impossible this year. I used to run a program in Miami—and I'm going to be running it again—called
Encuentros Projects and I brought one of the brothers there. I met him about five years ago through that project. Then, out of the blue, the first time I heard of him again was at Cannes with this film October. It's a dark, but funny, story about a money lender in Peru who can only relate to other people through money exchanges. His "personal" relationships are all through prostitutes so one day one of them leaves him a baby and he's got to deal with this baby. A woman, one of his clients, steps in to help him out and the film is all about how they try to form a new kind of family.

Guillén: Talk to me a little bit more about this Encuentros Projects you run in Miami. When is that held?

Sanchez: March.

Guillén: Is it a film festival?

Sanchez: No. In 2003 we brought nine projects to Miami either to find co-production or just to get the word out on the projects. That became known as the Encuentros Projects.

Guillén: Is this a public event?

Sanchez: No.

Guillén: So it's more a venture to put filmmakers and their projects in touch with production money?

Sanchez: Exactly.

Guillén: So back to your line-up: Icíar Bollaín's Even the Rain.

Sanchez: She's a Spanish filmmaker and her film is about a crew of Spanish filmmakers who go to Bolivia to make a film about the conquest of America. They arrive during the water crisis in Cochabamba when a lot of demonstrations are happening. So it's a film within a film; but, it's also about past tensions in Latin America as well as these present tensions. It's written by Paul Laverty who is Ken Loach's frequent screenwriter and both Loach and Laverty will be coming to the public screening to introduce the film and conduct a Q&A. I'm very excited about that.

Guillén: We touched upon Lope, which I'm highly anticipating. I was a fan of Andrucha Waddington's House of Sand and interviewed him when that film made its rounds. Lope has a beautiful look and promises a swashbuckling historical sweep.

Sanchez: It's an epic but it's also a lot of fun with beautiful actors and actresses.

Guillén: Is it a film you can see gaining traction on the circuit?

Sanchez: I wonder. I don't know. I hope so. It's hard with historical dramas.

Guillén: I guess so much is contingent upon whether or not audiences are engaged with any particular history?

Sanchez: Exactly.

Guillén: For me Lope de Vega is a master not known to most and so I'm intrigued by this biopic.

Sanchez: It's just such a wonderful story about an artist coming into his own. I think for Andrucha it's a parallel story to becoming a filmmaker. That's one of the things that's interesting about it. Andrucha will be here, straight from Venice.

Guillén: What about What I Most Want?

Sanchez: That is the first feature film by
Delfina Castagnino, who was previously the editor for Lisandro Alonso's Los Muertos and Fantasma. She's young and this debut is a very small personal film from Patagonia about two female friends that are going through difficult times of loss in their lives—one of them has lost her father and the other is going through a break-up of a relationship—and it's incredibly acted. I love it when films are this personal and you can feel the director's anxieties, which I find fascinating.

Guillén: And how about the titularly similar Anything You Want?

Sanchez: That film is by
Achero Mañas who a few years back did a film called November, which won the FIPRESCI Award that year. This is his first film in eight years. I really like it but I'm wondering how the audience is going to react? It might be an audience favorite. It's a weird story about a little girl who loses her mother. Her father—played by Juan Diego Botto, who I consider one of Spain's best actors—in order to help the little girl go through her grieving process, approaches a drag queen to help him dress up as a woman so at night he can pretend to be her mother. But then—because she always wants her mother—he starts to lose his identity. [We both laugh.] It's kind of morally nebulous because you're thinking, "Ay, is that good for the kid?" So we'll see how that one works out.

Guillén: So of the ones remaining on your slate that I'm not going to be able to catch at official TIFF screenings, which would you recommend I keep an eye on?

Daniel Hendler's comedy Norberto's Deadline, which played in Locarno. Also, you must see José Luis Guerín's Guest; it's wonderful and special. His film definitely falls into that hybrid genre we were talking about earlier and he's a master at it. He goes to all these film festivals and you think the film's going to go one way; but, then he leaves the festivals behind and he gets into the street life of each place he visits. He explores little neighborhoods in Colombia that I didn't even know existed! In hardly any time at all, he achieves an intimacy with the people he meets.

Guillén: Balada Triste is yours?

Sanchez: Ah yes,
Álex de la Iglesia's latest film about the Spanish Civil War. I know that we have seen many but this one is from the gut.

Guillén: Manuel Martín Cuenca's Half Of Oscar?

Sanchez: Another nice film from Spain. Cuenca has made two films before but neither have shown in North America and Half Of Oscar is a truly different look at Spain set in the mountains of Almeria. The landscape becomes a vital part of the film and was one of the elements I found most fascinating about it. I would strongly recommend it. And you have to see
Nicolás Pereda's Summer of Goliath.

Guillén: Why are you so enthused about that film?

Sanchez: It's another documentary-fiction hybrid; but visually, it's experimental, unexpected and visceral. Like Crab Trap last year, Summer of Goliath really achieves a sense of place, of this small town in Mexico.

Guillén: So we touched upon this when we were talking about the contemporary, but you seem to have programmed several of these hybrid films that blend documentary, fiction and essay. Is this a particular development you're seeing in the films of Latin America?

Sanchez: Again, this is a question I've asked myself because these films mostly seem to be coming from Latin America, Spain and Portugal. Is it particular to those cultures? I know that Lisandro Alonso is beloved by many of these filmmakers. They watch his films faithfully. No doubt the new Argentine cinema in general affected the region so, yes, I suspect there must be some Latin American sensibility that is related to the development of the genre. Then again, it's not just being expressed in Latin America. Apichatpong, for example, would speak to its presence in Thailand.

Guillén: When I tell people that I mainly focus on Latin American cinema, I often hear the complaint that Latin American films rely too much on the genre of melodrama, emulating telenovelas to achieve popular success. Can you speak to that?

Sanchez: Well, many of them are overtly melodramatic; but, I try not to select those for the festival.

Guillén: One or two are fine for their broad humor but they tend to wear me out. Well, Diana, thanks again for the preview and your insights into how you developed this year's Latin American, Spanish and Portuguese program and congratulations again on the success of some of your films from last year, namely Alamar and Crab Trap. I look forward to comparing impressions after the festival.

Cross-published on

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

TIFF 2010: THE HOUSEMAID (HANYO, 2010)—The Evening Class Interview With Im Sang-Soo & Lee Jung-jae

Singular pleasures. When I was invited by the publicists of The Housemaid (Hanyo, 2010)—the highly anticipated remake of Kim Ki-Young's 1960 Korean classic—to interview director Im Sang-soo, I agreed to do so if they would pull me a ticket to TIFF's North American gala premiere at Roy Thompson Hall. Little did I expect that—not only would they pull me a ticket—but they would seat me in the director's box with Im Sang-soo and The Housemaid's two lead actors Jeon Do-yeon (Cannes winner for Secret Sunshine) and Lee Jung-jae. At film's end when the spotlight angled up to our section during the applause, I had to resist rising and flexing my bicep. No sense in stealing Lee Jung-jae's thunder.

It was a grounding shift from that evening's spectacular spotlight to my relaxed conversation with the convivial Im Sang-soo and his disappointingly laconic actors the following day at the Four Seasons (especially Jeon Do-yeon who deferred to her director on every count, such that I finally gave up addressing her directly). While waiting for my interview to begin, I was afforded the added pleasure of overhearing Marion Cotillard pointing to the poster for Little White Lies to advise her rapt friends exactly who among that film's male cast was gay. (Don't worry, boys, your secrets are safe with me!)

As synopsized for TIFF: "In this erotic thriller, the housemaid of an upper-class family becomes entangled in a dangerous tryst. A satirical look at class structure, reminiscent of the work of Claude Chabrol, this sexy soap opera is a story of revenge and retribution." At MUBI, David Hudson rounded up the multiple reviews from The Housemaid's international premiere at Cannes. For those who didn't catch Kim Ki-Young's original version at any one of a number of revival screenings this past year (including its appearance in the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival's "Out of the Vault" selection), MUBI has continued to offer Kim Ki-Young's original on free streaming video.

A reminder to Bay Area audiences that Im Sang-soo's The Housemaid will be screening in the World Cinema sidebar at the upcoming 33rd edition of the
Mill Valley Film Festival.

Im Sang-soo was born in Seoul. He studied history at Yonsei University before enrolling at the Korean Academy of Film Arts. As a writer and director, his feature films include Girls' Night Out (1998), Tears (2001), A Good Lawyer's Wife (2003), The President's Last Bang (2005), and The Old Garden (2007). [This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!!]

* * *

Michael Guillén: Recently, I had the opportunity to catch a revival screening of Kim Ki-Young's original version of The Housemaid at our Asian film festival in San Francisco and—now having seen your version of the story at last night's North American premiere at Roy Thompson Hall—I can express my admiration that your version is so different, that it's not really a remake at all, and that it's a true revisioning of the narrative. I commend you on that achievement.

I would, however, seek to explore those differences and why you decided to take the story in such a separate direction than the original and why you infused it with such an altogether distinct tone? What was the challenge for you in taking on Kim Ki-Young's much-beloved original?

Im Sang-soo: Kim Ki-Young's movie was made in 1960. The background of that film was its accurate description of the socio-economic environment at the time. The film emerged when Korea was just beginning to develop its middle class and many young women from the countryside would move to the city to work as housemaids for these burgeoning middle class families. I made my film different than the original because Korea's socio-economic environment has changed since then. These days, due to globalization, there is much more separation between the poor and the rich and the definition of the middle class has actually started to break down. Many Koreans who once thought of themselves as middle class—like Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon) in my film—have started to self-destruct as the separation between rich and poor has increased, such that now there is a super-rich class, like the family where Eun-yi is employed. So, as you say, Kim Ki-Young's film is legendary and I wanted to challenge myself remaking it.

Guillén: But what specifically was it that you found challenging in readdressing the socio-economic issues first described by Kim Ki-Young?

Sang-soo: The challenge was exactly in describing how the socio-economic situation is changing in Korea. As throughout Asia, there is now an emergence of the super rich, which is offset against the fact that in the past 20 years those who are poor are becoming even poorer and having even more of a hard time of it. I wanted to challenge myself by showing this social problem.

Guillén: When Noah Cowan introduced the film at last night's gala, he dedicated it to Claude Chabrol who passed away yesterday. Cowan likened your film to Chabrol's "chilly thrillers"; however, you have likened your film to Alfred Hitchcock's style of suspense. Can you speak to what you feel you have borrowed from Hitchcock and brought into your film?

Sang-soo: In François Truffaut's interview with Alfred Hitchcock, Hitchcock talked about what he felt were the true elements of suspense. For example, when his characters are having a sexual relationship, they think no one knows; but, Hitchcock makes sure the audience knows. The suspense arises from the tension between what is believed to be unknown by the characters but is known by the audience.

Guillén: Speaking of sexual tension, The Housemaid heats up the auditorium. How do you direct such intimate scenes with your actors? How do you create that erotic environment on set? Do you work on a closed set?

Sang-soo: I worked with the sexual relationship between Eun-yi and her employer Hoon (Lee Jung-jae) so that it would be secretive and express the danger of their lust. I'm wondering, did you feel that?

Guillén: Definitely! My question, however, is more technical. I'm wondering how you contain the eroticism on set? Did this require a closed set so that the actors could indulge the intensity of the scenes?

Sang-soo: Usually, yes, it was a closed set but also it must be said that my actors are very professional. They could joke around with each before shooting; but, once the cameras started rolling, they took their direction quite seriously.

Guillén: The film's tag-line that "sometimes innocence becomes a menace" distinguishes the difference in character and tone that I noted between Kim Ki-Young's film and yours. In the original, I felt the maid was bad from the beginning but Jeon Do-yeon's performance is admirably multi-faceted and her character arc painfully enunciated. Why did you choose to focus on the—for lack of a better term—deflowering of her innocence?

Sang-soo: I actually don't think it's a "deflowering" of innocence because there is no person in the world who is innocent, per se. Eun-yi understood what was going on, she knew what was at stake in the situation and what the dynamics were within the house, but she went ahead and built up her hopes and enflamed her desires. Her revenge at film's end was a way to maintain her dignity in the face of her own choices.

Guillén: Jung-jae Lee, your character Hoon has to hold his own among a pride of lionesses, in effect; strong, beautiful, cruel women. How did you pull out of yourself the necessary strength to match these women?

Jung-jae Lee: Through unexpected behavior.

Guillén: How do you mean "unexpected"?

Jung-jae Lee: That the character himself would even think of having sexual relations with the housemaid in the presence of his family indicates that he possesses this strength.

Guillén: A strength which could probably be more accurately characterized as arrogant privilege. My favorite nuance in your characterization of Hoon was—when discovering that his wife and his mother-in-law have had Eun-yi's baby aborted—rather than being concerned with her welfare, he is indignant that this action was taken without his knowledge or compliance. For a moment you almost feel compassion for him, for his loss, and yet you realize it's mainly pride on his part and no sense of genuine care for Eun-yi.

Jung-jae Lee: I think every human being is capable of such selfishness and duplicity, pretending to put someone else's interests first but thinking only of themselves.

Guillén: With that arrogant privilege in mind, let's turn to how it has been represented in the film's production design. If your challenge to yourself, Im Sang-soo, was to depict the increasing divide between the poor and the super-rich, you have staged it excellently in this house where Eun-yi comes to work as a maid. The house is amazingly designed, not the least of which is its collection of paintings scattered throughout. They telegraph a sense of unbridled acquisition true to Hoon's privileged character. Clearly this was your intention? Can you speak to how you came up with the vision of the house?

Sang-soo: Just as in all the super-rich homes in Europe, Korea and Asia, what these people try to do is to copy the traditional European lifestyle: drinking good wines, collecting paintings, listening to opera. Myself, I find it questionable that this would be a life they genuinely enjoy or if it's not more for show.

Guillén: I don't want to give away the film's shocking and spectacular set piece ending; however, I am interested in the rhyme between the film's introductory scene where the young woman jumps off the high building to her death and Eun-yi's suicide. What are you trying to say by that framing rhyme?

Sang-soo: People don't know why the young woman in the first scene has committed suicide. These people witness the suicide and then they forget about it. It's possible that at film's end when Eun-yi commits suicide that people in the neighborhood heard about the housemaid committing suicide but then—just as easily as in the first instance—they will forget about it. The point is that—even though throughout the movie it is never explained why the young woman in the first scene committed suicide—she has a story. We just don't know about it like we know about Eun-yi's story. Suicide has become much more frequent in Korea as the economy has become unstable.

Guillén: My final question, then. The coda to the film is a nearly surreal and extremely stylized set piece that proves unsettling for being so ambivalent. Can you offer a bit of insight as to what you wanted the audience to take away from that scene?

Sang-soo: There has been a lot of controversy surrounding that last scene. Even one of the producers wanted it deleted. Many people complain about it. But without that scene, I think the movie would have been just so-so. I went with my gut feeling and included it. It's a simple set-up: they're giving a birthday party to a little girl who just witnessed something terrible and trying to cover up her trauma with expensive gifts. I wanted audiences to wonder if she could truly heal from such an event?

Cross-published on

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

MVFF33 2010—Michael Hawley Previews the Line-Up

At the press conference announcing the 33rd Mill Valley Film Festival (MFFF) line-up, Founder/Executive Director Mark Fishkin referred to a "programming sensibility" that has evolved at MVFF over the course of three decades. That sensibility has become an extremely successful formula—one that inspired indieWIRE to name it one of the world's 50 leading film festivals. There's little arguing with success, and as evidenced by the 143 films and programs in this year's selection, MVFF33 will be adhering to the tried and true.

The bedrock of the festival's success is its position as THE post-Venice / Toronto / Telluride launching pad for autumn prestige films expected to figure prominently during Awards Season. If you want to see tomorrow's big movies today, as well as ogle the stars that come with them, MVFF is the Bay Area's place to be as amenable celebs make the trek to Marin County. Among this year's attendees will be Annette Bening, currently riding a 10-year career high with The Kids Are All Right. She won't be plugging a film, but will instead be feted with a clips, conversation and Q&A tribute. Also getting the MVFF tribute treatment this year is Edward Norton. He'll be there with Stone, playing a convicted arsonist who uses his wife (Milla Jovovich) to manipulate an early prison release from an about-to-retire parole officer (Robert De Niro). Bay Area native Sam Rockwell will be at the fest on Opening Night. He's accompanying Conviction, in which he plays a convict whose sister (Hilary Swank) is hellbent on proving his innocence. Last but not least, we'll get a gander at fellow Bay Area boy James Franco, who's getting raves for his portrayal of extreme mountain-climber Aron Ralston in Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire follow-up, 127 Hours.

If famous directors are more your thing, MVFF33 features several prominent ones live and in person. In 2006 the fest did a Spotlight on Alejandro González Iñarritu with Babel. That Spotlight is turned back on in 2010 as the noted Mexican director returns with Biutiful, for which Javier Bardem won a Best Actor prize at Cannes. Meanwhile, artist/filmmaker Julian Schnabel occupies MVFF33's Centerpiece slot with his latest work, Miral. This drama set in the middle-East is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Rula Jebreal (also expected to attend) and stars Hiam Abbass (Lemon Tree, The Visitor) and Slumdog Millionaire heroine Freida Pinto. Closing out MVFF33 on October 17 will be The Debt, to be attended by its director, John Madden (Shakespeare in Love). The Debt stars Helen Mirren as an Israeli Mossad agent being forced out of retirement.

Among the other upcoming fall releases appearing at Mill Valley we have—yes, Helen Mirren again—this time starring as Prospera in Julie Taymor's (Frida, Across the Universe) sure-to-be strange adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Sharing the Opening Night duties with the aforementioned Conviction is Tom Hooper's The King's Speech. Fresh from its Audience Award win at Toronto, the film stars Colin Firth as a stammering King George VI who's aided by an unorthodox speech therapist played by Geoffrey Rush. For those who can't wait for the October 29 release of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the third filmed installment of Stieg Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy" will be shown once at the festival on October 13. Marin-ite Sean Penn is represented at MVFF33 by Doug Liman's Fair Game, in which he plays the husband of outed undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts). Finally, in what is sure to be a huge crowd pleaser, Sally Hawkins leads a strike of women auto-factory workers in Nigel Cole's Made in Dagenham. (Personally, the thought of watching the actress who played Happy Go Lucky's obnoxious optimist Poppy, channeling Norma Rae in a film by the guy who directed Calendar Girls is the very stuff of nightmares.)

Another area in which MFFF stakes its reputation is the Valley of the Docs section. I probably watch over 50 documentary features each year and I'm always impressed how many of the best come from MVFF. There are exactly two dozen in this year's line-up, and here's a handful that are of interest to me. At the top of the list is The Two Horses of Genghis Khan, another Mongolian docu-fiction hybrid from the director of The Story of the Weeping Camel and The Cave of the Yellow Dog. I have high hopes for Queen of the Sun, a doc about the frightening phenomenon of honeybee CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder), which has got to be better than the pointless film Colony that screened at this year' SF International Film Festival. Every film enthusiast should want to see Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, a study of the enormous talent who shot The Red Shoes and The African Queen (and who only passed away last year). Docs about the counterculture are a MVFF mainstay, and this year I'm eyeing Ed Hardy 'Tattoo the World' and Space, Land and Time: Underground Adventures with Ant Farm. Most Valuable Players sounds like fun, as it takes a peek at the Freddy Awards (the Tonys of local high school musical productions). Finally, at the press conference Fishkin highly recommended Stefan Jarl's Submission, in which the acclaimed Swedish documentarian has his blood analyzed and discovers it contains several hundred types of industrial chemicals.

The festival frequently pairs a music documentary with a live performance event. Following the October 15 screening of
Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone—a Laurence Fishburne-narrated doc about the influential L.A. based ska-punk band—Fishbone itself will perform live at The Woods Music Hall in Mill Valley. (The previous evening, Everyday Sunshine opens SF DocFest and Fishbone will play that fest's Opening Night Bash at the DNA Lounge).

The biggest part of MVFF is always the World Cinema section, which clocks in with 40 films this year. As usual, the Mill Valley programmers have marched to their own drummer in assembling 2010's international line-up. So if you're hoping to catch the more acclaimed/discussed films from this year's major film festivals, MVFF might disappoint—perhaps this year more than in the past. I'm pretty obsessive about tracking these things and at first glance I drew a blank on all but a handful of titles. Apart from some films I mentioned earlier, only three rang a bell. Im Sang-soo's The Housemaid is a slick re-imagining of Kim Ki-young's 1960 cult shocker, in which a man's extramarital affair has horrific repercussions for his family. (The SF International Asian American Film Fest screened the original version last spring.) In an admitted attempt to entice a younger demographic to MVFF, they've programmed French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats, a follow-up to last year's wildly acclaimed I Killed My Mother. Dolan once again directs himself, this time as a guy competing with his female best friend for the attentions of a dim Adonis. Then in Sam Taylor-wood's Nowhere Boy, Aaron Johnson (Kick-Ass) serves up a portrait of the teen-aged John Lennon. October 9 will be Lennon's 70th birthday and to celebrate (albeit one day early) MVFF will have a live music event featuring vintage Fab Four video clips and a performance by cover band Rubber Souldiers. Nowhere Boy opens in theaters on October 15.

Closer scrutiny of the World Cinema section revealed some familiar names. MVFF-regular Jan Hrebejk is currently the Czech Republic's most prominent director, and his latest film Kawasaki's Rose is about a revered political dissident with a shameful secret. The film was just named that country's 2010 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar submission. A new film from director/political activist Raoul Peck (Lumumba) is always welcome. His satirical Moloch Tropical follows the final 24 hours of a Haitian autocrat's presidency. Peck should know from whence he speaks, having once served as Haiti's Minister of Culture. Veteran French director Alain Corneau (who died one month ago) is in MVFF33 with Love Crime, a tale of corporate intrigue starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludvine Sagnier. Also from France we have none other than Gerard Dépardieu having a go at "The Three Musketeers" writer Alexandre Dumas, in Safy Nebbou's Dumas. Another veteran director in the line-up is Japan's Yôji Yamada, best known for his Tora-San comedies. I adored his recent samurai trilogy (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, Love and Honor), but scathing reviews have put me off his latest, About Her Brother.

There are more intriguing possibilities in World Cinema. Feo Aladag's When We Leave won the top prize at Tribeca and was just named Germany's 2010 Oscar submission. It stars Sibel Kekilli (Fatih Akin's Head On) as a mother fleeing an abusive husband in Istanbul. Another German-language film, Switzerland's Julia's Disappearance, features the estimable Bruno Ganz. These two movies will respectively serve as Centerpiece and Closing Night films during October's revamped Berlin & Beyond festival at the Castro Theater. From the SF-based Global Film Initiative's 2010 Global Lens series, MVFF has programmed Adrift from Vietnam and Becloud from Mexico. The entire 10-film 2010 GFI series will play the Rafael Film Center following the festival, from October 18 to 28. From Argentina I'm reading good things about Puzzle, which stars The Headless Woman's Maria Onetto. Set in 1963, Italy's Cosmonauta is about a teen-aged girl's obsession with the Soviet space program. It received two small prizes at last year's Venice Film Festival. Desert Flower is the true story of Somali supermodel Waris Dirie and recreates her "transformation from starving runaway to fashion icon to human rights activist and U.N. Special Ambassador dedicated to the fight against Female Genital Mutilation." Set in the Transylvanian countryside, Katalin Varga follows a woman's quest to avenge a rape that occurred in her past. Then in Black Field, a 17th century Turkish janissary joins forces with a Greek nun who possesses a "little something extra" (hint, hint—the film is co-presented by Frameline). Finally, who can resist a title like The Most Important Thing in Life is Not Being Dead?

MVFF33 also has several American indies of note. Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture won the jury award for Best Narrative Feature at SXSW, and what would MVFF be without a new film from prolific local director Rob Nilsson (Sand)? In addition to 127 Hours, James Franco stars in Jay Anania's existentialist neo-noir William Vincent. The October 17 screening of William Vincent begins a half hour before Franco's Spotlight tribute at the Rafael, so it's not unthinkable to hope he'll drop by to do a personal intro. Elsewhere in MVFF33 you'll find the 5@5 Shorts Programs (five programs of five shorts each screening weekdays at 5:00), a Children's FilmFest (now in its 17th year), special panels and lastly, a 30th anniversary screening of The Empire Strikes Back. It can all be found on the festival's website, along with many more narrative features and documentaries I wasn't able to mention here.

Cross-published on
film-415 and Twitch.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

PERUVIAN CINEMA: CONTRACORRIENTE (UNDERTOW, 2009)—The Evening Class Interview With Javier Fuentes-León

Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water / and he spent a long time watching from a lonely wooden tower / and when he knew for certain only drowning men would see him / he said, "All men shall be sailors then until the sea shall free them..."—Leonard Cohen, "Suzanne"

Javier Fuentes-León's Contracorriente (Undertow, 2009) screened in Frameline34's spotlight on South American queer cinema and won that festival's Outstanding First Feature Award, having already scored the World Cinema Audience Award (Drama) at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Among its multiple awards and distinctions, Undertow has resonated with audiences in San Sebastian, Cartagena, Miami, Montreal, Nashville, Chicago, Utrecht, Madrid, Provincetown, Slovakia, Galway, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Vancouver, bespeaking its universal message of love, loss and courageous tolerance. It has since been announced as Peru's Official Submission to the 83rd Academy Awards® for Best Foreign Language Film.

As synopsized at the film's website: "Miguel (Cristian Mercado) is a handsome, young and beloved fisherman in Cabo Blanco, a small fishing village in the Northern coast of Peru, where the community has deep-rooted religious traditions. Miguel is married to the beautiful Mariela (Tatiana Astengo), who is seven months pregnant with their firstborn, but Miguel harbors a scandalous secret: He is having a love affair with another man, Santiago (Manolo Cardona), a painter who is ostracized by the townsfolk for being agnostic and open about his sexuality.

"When Santiago drowns accidentally in the ocean's strong undertow, he cannot pass peacefully to the other side. He returns after his death to ask Miguel to look for his body and bury it according to the rituals of the town. Miguel must choose between sentencing Santiago to eternal torment or doing right by him and, in turn, revealing their relationship to Mariela and the entire village. Miguel is forced to deal with the consequences of his acts and to come to terms with who he really is, even if by doing so he stands the chance of losing the people he loves the most."

After leaving behind his medical career in Peru, Javier Fuentes-León received a scholarship to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree in film directing at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles. His 1997 short film Rooms was recognized with an award from the National Film Board of Peru and praised as "among the best work done by a Peruvian filmmaker in the 1990s." In 1998, Javier became the head writer for U.S. TV shows on Telemundo, wrote the subtitles of films for major Hollywood studios, and edited commercials and television programs. Undertow is his first full length feature. My thanks to Frameline and Larsen Associates for arranging time for me to sit down with Javier in the Castro Theater's mezzanine to discuss his enchanting queer-inflected ghost story. [This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!!]

* * *

Michael Guillén: First of all, congratulations on winning the World Cinema Audience Award (Drama) at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

Javier Fuentes-León: Thank you.

Guillén: And on having your first feature film picked up for distribution by Wolfe Video. That's quite an achievement for your first venture.

Fuentes-León: It's been amazing. It's what you hope for. When you dream about making a film and then you make the film, you hope somebody will like it and that it will get somewhere. But this has been a lot more than I thought I was going to get.

Guillén: Let's start with the title of your film. Contracorriente is being interpreted as Undertow, but wouldn't a more exact translation be Crosscurrents?

Fuentes-León: It does mean that; but, the funny thing is that I started film in the U.S. at Cal Arts. Before that, I practiced medicine in Peru. So the people who have surrounded me for a long time in the film world are English-speaking. I wrote Undertow in English first and then I translated it into Spanish so the title Undertow was the original title and then—when I was trying to find a title in Spanish that would work—the literal translation of "undertow" into Spanish would have been resaca. The problem with resaca was that in Peru it's a slang term for "hangover", which would have given the film a different meaning. So I had to look for another name in Spanish and Contracorriente seemed like a great name, which—if I'd retitled the film Crosscurrents in English—would have been a great name too; but, I actually like Undertow. Maybe because it was there from the beginning? But also because it has to do with this force that pulls you down. Literally, you have the undertow that drowns Santiago; but, metaphorically, it's a force that pulls Miguel down into hiding and fighting his true nature. Other people have told me they prefer Crosscurrents and they think it fits better.

Guillén: Killian Melloy who writes for the San Franciscan site Edge had an interesting take on it. He felt the alternate title Crosscurrents better served to explain Miguel's conflicted state of mind and the "two distinct motivations [that] are at work on Miguel. He wants to possess Santiago without giving up his wife and infant son; but he also comes to realize that he's only tormenting himself, and Santiago, by refusing to let go."

Fuentes-León: That is an interesting take and confirms why the film is called Contracorriente in Spanish; but, at the end of the day, I liked the metaphor of forces that are in conflict and Undertow speaks to that as well.

Guillén: There are some fascinating conflicting dynamics going on in Undertow. First, you've set your narrative in a conservative fishing village on the Northern coast of Peru so that one would instantly presume—and your narrative specifically addresses this—that there's going to be a high incidence of homophobia that your characters will have to deal with. However, what strikes me as the real danger is not the community's intolerance but Miguel's internalized homophobia. Can you speak to that tension between the external and internal forms of homophobia? I know you've been away from Peru for a while, but how are the attitudes currently towards homosexuality?

Fuentes-León: Although the film is not autobiographical—my life is not at all like Miguel's in the external details: I'm not a fisherman, I've never been married—I have come out as an artist and a gay man. Coming out is every step you take that brings you closer to who you really are; every step that makes you more authentic. The two major steps I've taken have been, first, deciding that practicing medicine was not for me. I knew that if I continued on that path it would take me further away from who I wanted to be. So I decided to change. After I graduated from med school and told myself, "This is not what I really want", I was afraid of the reactions I would receive from everyone around me; but—thank God!—I received a lot of support, not only from my immediate family but my friends, even those who were studying medicine with me. That was a good surprise, knowing that when you take a brave step people around you might actually admire you—even if they don't agree—if that step is honest and courageous and people see that it's something that brings you closer to who you really are. The second step was coming out as a gay man.

But as I was saying, although the film is not autobiographical, a lot of what Miguel is going through is close to how I felt. In response to your question, there are many films like Boys Don't Cry, for example, that focus on external homophobia working against the main character. When I was in the process of first coming out, and especially when I was fighting against being gay and wanting to be like the others, it was tough, especially telling my parents—I could see the pain in their eyes—but, the real enemy was me. I made it way more difficult for myself than anybody else did.

Guillén: Unfortunately, that's the way it usually works.

Fuentes-León: But that's what coming out really is. A lot of people say coming out is when they tell their family, their friends, whoever; but, I don't think that's what coming out is. That's when you announce it. You come out when you accept yourself and when you are at peace within your own skin. I wanted Undertow to be about that and not so much about the community reaction.

Guillén: You chose the seaside town of Cabo Blanco as the location for your film. I understand that your film is meant to be something of a fable with no necessary specificity to its location, let alone any specific reference to time, and this successfully lends a mythopoeic beauty to your film. As someone who has been steeped perhaps one hour too long in Jungian psychology, I couldn't help but recall C.G. Jung's suggestion that a seaside setting (especially in dreams) is where a man gets in touch with his contrasexual nature, his anima.

Fuentes-León: I've never heard of that before.

Guillén: As much as Jung's suggestion speaks to dreams, I feel it likewise speaks to cinema, particularly in your own film where this young man Miguel is coming to terms with his anima (i.e., his "feminine side") through his conflicted feelings of love both for his wife Mariela and his male lover Santiago. Aside from the psychological meaning of the seaside village of Cabo Blanco, I've read interesting reports of the physical filming of Undertow in that fishing village and how the locals reacted not only to the filmmaking process but the film's content. Can you speak to that? Originally, you didn't tell the locals that your film had a gay theme?

Fuentes-León: Not at the beginning, no. We wanted them to cooperate in so many ways and I was afraid that they wouldn't if they knew what the film was about. Cabo Blanco is extremely religious. We didn't actually film Undertow's church scenes in Cabo Blanco's church. We dressed up a bar to serve as the church. Besides, Cabo Blanco's real church was proportionally huge compared to the small size of the town, almost ridiculously so, like: "God is here, boom!" [Laughs.] First, they wouldn't allow us to film in their church. Second, even though it was a real church it was way out of proportion to the town and I didn't feel that was what I wanted. But that's just by way of example of how religion had such a stronghold on this town. My art director would jokingly comment that no one was going to believe that in many places I actually had to bring religious paraphernalia down from the walls—usually art directors create a space by putting things up—but there was so much religious paraphernalia on the walls that we had to bring them down. Again, that tells you how much a Catholic stronghold there was in Cabo Blanco.

We knew that we needed a macho fishing village with a strong Catholic tradition; but, that we were shooting something that a lot of people were not going to be happy about. So at the beginning we decided not to reveal our intentions. When we were asked about the film, we were vague and said, "It's about a fisherman who is married and has a friend that the people in the village don't like and he's trying to show the people in the village that his friend is a nice guy." That satisfied them enough in the beginning. We actually decided to shoot some of the more revealing scenes—like Miguel and Santiago walking down the street holding hands—late in the shooting. I told my assistant director who was handling the shooting schedule that I wanted to shoot that scene towards the end because it was going to be a giveaway. In this town, male friends don't hold hands. But, you know, towards the middle of the shoot the villagers started to figure it out.

Also, at one point a journalist and a photographer arrived from Lima to cover the shooting of the film. On his break, the photographer went to the cantina of that town and—when he was asked what the film was about—he told them the whole story. So they found out.

Guillén: You were busted!

Fuentes-León: [Laughs.] Yes, we were busted basically and we were not happy about it at all, primarily because it didn't come from us. We didn't even know exactly how this photographer related the story because he hadn't even read the script. The next day we had a big shoot with a lot of extras and we were worried that they wouldn't show up now knowing what the film was about. Not all of them came, but many of them came, for the scene that was the big procession at the beginning of the film where we needed a lot of people. I think we underestimated them. Granted, we also brought them a lot of work and boosted their economy while we were there. We also brought attention and glamour to the town. They were grateful for many reasons. If it had not been this glamorous experience, maybe they would have been a little more vocal about how they really felt?

Guillén: Which leads me to ask, precisely because it was such a finite temporary experience for them, do you think that helped them absorb the experience and adjust themselves to it while it was happening? And then they could return to life as normal once you left?

Fuentes-León: Yes, because they could say, "That was them; that was not us."

Guillén: Undertow bears a thematic resemblance to a film that came out of Colombia last year, Oscar Ruiz Nava's El Vuelco del Cangrejo (Crab Trap, 2009); are you familiar with Oscar's film?

Fuentes-León: Yes, of course.

Guillén: Crab Trap plays with the similar premise of an outsider, an urbanite, entering a coastal village, albeit for different motivations. But in both your films this urbanized outsider doesn't quite fit in with the coastal community.

Fuentes-León: Some of the residents of Cabo Blanco did vocalize their concerns that they were worried what people would think about the village and how the film represented them.

Guillén: Speaking of representation, as well you know Undertow has been programmed in Frameline as part of a spotlight on LGBT cinema from South America. Indeed, it is riding the crest of a wave of films from South America with LGBT content currently touring the queer film festival circuit. Do you have a sense of why all of a sudden there is this flourescence of South American film with LGBT content? Are attitudes towards homosexuality changing in South America? There are at least 10 films in Frameline's spotlight coming from Peru, Colombia and Argentina and—though not programmed into Frameline's sidebar—I'm aware of other titles from Venezuela and Uruguay. What's going on?

Fuentes-León: Why films end up being made at the time they're made is a big question mark. I started writing my film, for example, in 2001. The fact that I ended up making it in 2008 such that it timed hitting the festival circuit in 2009 is happenstance. You could say Undertow speaks to who I've been all these years; but, the need to talk about that started in 2001. Also, keep in mind that directors are of all different ages.
Enrique Buchichio, the Uruguayan director of Leo's Room (2009) is near my age but I'm not sure of the ages of the other directors. But is there something about my generation that finally now at this age we can talk about being gay and that's why we needed to as filmmakers? You could say that it coincides with the fact that gay civil marriages are now possible in Buenos Aires, in Mexico City.

The same general question could be asked about whether there is a boom in Peruvian cinema since in the same year there have been four Peruvian films that have successfully achieved international visibility: mine; Claudia Llosa with La Teta Asustada (The Milk of Sorrow, 2009); Diego and Daniel Vega with Octubre (October, 2010), which just won a jury prize at Cannes; and Héctor Gálvez with Paraíso (Paradise, 2009), which competed in Venice. In one year Peru has been represented in the four major film festivals in the world, and one of them has been nominated for an Oscar®. Is that coincidence? It's hard to say. To answer your question, I'm hoping that it says something about the need to speak out about gay themes.

Guillén: Fair enough. You say you started writing Undertow in 2001: if, let's say, everything was set up just right and you had been offered the opportunity to film Undertow in 2001, could that have actually happened? Perhaps, like a fine wine, this script had to age?

Fuentes-León: I started writing Undertow in 2001 but the script only got to a mature state in 2005. There were elements I kept adding that changed it. For example, a scene that everyone seems to highlight in the film is where Miguel and Santiago walk through the village holding hands. That was actually the last scene I added to the script a mere two months before we started shooting.

Guillén: Let's talk about this maritime burial ritual portrayed in Undertow. Is this actually practiced in Cabo Blanco?

Fuentes-León: No.

Guillén: Ah, so this is something you have imagined?

Fuentes-León: Yes, it's something I made up.

Guillén: Can you speak to why you valued that image?

Fuentes-León: It's difficult to answer your question because that image has always been there from the beginning. The seed of this whole story came out of an exercise I wrote for a screenwriting class in film school. It was the scene in the kitchen where Santiago shows up for the first time; the only scene where the three main characters are all together. Based on that scene, I wrote a play and in that play was already this idea of the burial ceremony. In that play the love triangle was between the fisherman, his wife, and the village whore (because I wasn't out yet) and it was only later that I realized this story needed to be about the fisherman's affair with another man. But at that time it was a heterosexual love triangle and it had a different tone, a different sensibility. What I mean by that is that the relationship between the fisherman and the whore was more conflicted and vengeful. In that version it was the whore who got drunk while waiting for the fisherman, drowned, and came back from the dead demanding acknowledgment of their love.

Guillén: As it played out in the film, however, I got the sense that it was Miguel who was not letting go of Santiago, rather than the other way around.

Fuentes-León: Exactly. I love how you observe that.

Guillén: And, again, in terms of internalized homophobia, this was Miguel's way of controlling his conflicted feelings for Santiago. In some ways you could say it was almost better for Miguel that Santiago had died and become a ghost because he was invisible to others, which made it more convenient for Miguel.

Fuentes-León: It was definitely more convenient.

Guillén: Which proved to be interesting in Miguel's character arc as he became gradually aware of what exactly he was demanding of Santiago. So let's turn to Santiago's death by drowning. I'm quite fond of magical realist flourishes in literature and film and am often struck by how magical realism provides narrative traction in Latin American cinema. You have used it quite delicately in Undertow. I didn't even fully realize Santiago had drowned at first and that his subsequent appearances were spectral. Can you speak to why you preferred to visualize his death with such a light touch of magical realism?

Fuentes-León: There were a couple of decisions that took me in that direction. Originally I had written a scene which showed Santiago drinking, wading into the ocean, being caught in the undertow, crushed against the rocks and drowning. Production-wise, however, that would have been hell, especially with my small budget. For practical considerations, I needed to consider whether I really needed to shoot a scene that would be hell to shoot, cost a lot of money, possibly even be dangerous. Perhaps I could have found a creative way to film it and reduce the risk; but, the fact that I had to face these production issues made me question whether I truly needed to show the scene to further the narrative? Then I realized that I was telling the story from Miguel's point of view and that—since we are seeing through his eyes—we shouldn't know that Santiago has drowned and should, instead, feel Miguel's confusion.

Guillén: Your introduction of Santiago's death by cinematic elision, though momentarily confusing, worked for me because it effectively served to thin the membrane between life and death. That inbetween realm between life and death is such a mysterious region that any effort on your part to try to depict it or explain it too literally would have been foolhardy. There was something honest in Miguel's confusion and the audience's participation in that confusion. I found how you handled it quite effective.

Fuentes-León: I'm glad, because some people have actually asked me at the end of the film: "Did Santiago die?" They thought he was still alive. Perhaps that confusion is the price I have to pay for not literally depicting his drowning?

Guillén: But to phrase that as "the price you have to pay" is akin to criticizing the poetry of your film. You can't criticize poetry. It either speaks to you or doesn't.

Fuentes-León: I agree with you. I haven't thought about it the way you put it, but this fine line between life and death is hard to picture or imagine, and especially to film.

Guillén: In your Newfest interview with Evans Forlidas, you stated: "I've always liked the idea of having two people symbolize different, complementary aspects of the ideal lover." Do you remember saying that?

Fuentes-León: Absolutely not! [Laughs.]

Guillén: Well, it's a beautiful statement and plays into the erotic triangulation that you first of all configured as a heterosexual triangle but which then matured into Undertow's bisexual triangle. What is it about that erotic triangulation that speaks to you as a filmmaker?

Fuentes-León: Wow. What a question!

Guillén: I'm sorry, I'm just the type of person that needs to know such things.

Fuentes-León: No, no, it's fine. I think an interest in erotic triangulations is very human. I made that statement in response to Evans Forlidas' own reference to Bruno Barreto's Brazilian comedy Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976). Are you familiar with that film?

Guillén: Yes, it's a favorite.

Fuentes-León: The two men in that film are particularly different, to the point that they are stereotypically different. One is the Casanova lover wild card and the other is stable but boring. I find it a romantic idea that you will find the perfect person who will embody everything you want and everything you need. That sentiment works beautifully for literature....

Guillén: But it's damn hard to find!

Fuentes-León: More, it's damn hard to be! I don't think I could be the perfect anything for anybody. The romantic resolution would be to accept the fantasy that two people could do that.

Guillén: Would you say that this is the gay male equivalent of the well-known fantasy of the madonna-whore dyad entertained by most straight males?

Fuentes-León: [Chuckling] Yes!

Guillén: Returning to the narrative domain of magical realism, which is so strong in Latin America and often the means by which socio-political truths can be articulated. Recently I asked Miguel Littin—and I pose the same question to you—what is it about the particular strain of Latin American magical realism that furthers the articulation of socio-political issues? You wanted to make a sociological point in Undertow and you made that point through a poetic and fantastic metaphysic. Why does magical realism allow that to work?

Fuentes-León: Because magical realism allows our discourse to transcend its limitations. Without elements of magical realism in my film, Undertow would be more of a kitchen sink drama. The elements of death and fantasy help the film transcend the reality of these three people. Even in cultures like the U.S. that are removed from such things, Latin American folk tales have magic. When we were kids we were told tales that included magic. By incorporating magical realism into my film it helps achieve a connection to that core oral tradition which many of us come from and allows the film to transcend its realistic limitations.

Guillén: I would add that magical realism also introduces a serviceable morality without hitting audiences over the head. I would suggest that one of the reasons Undertow is so popular among audiences is because you have the good instinct not to make the film too specific; i.e., too ideologic. From what I understand, Undertow is appealing to audiences all across the board: gay, straight, male, female, young, old and I presume that's because its story is more fable than fact.

Fuentes-León: It also follows classic Greek outlines: you have a protagonist-hero and his antagonist, which in this case you could say is both one and the same person in Miguel. Or, you could say Santiago is Miguel's mentor; but, he's also Miguel's antagonist. Or Mariela could be the antagonist. All the basic elements of a Greek tale are there, which—once again—is mythical, mystical; but, believe me, I don't look for it. When I get excited with an idea, somehow it has magic in it or at least a bit of an off element that allows me to jump out of the plain reality in which we usually live.

Guillén: I favor films that tell their stories through images. I mean, I don't mind being told a story; but, I prefer the images to hold the story. In your film, let's say, I loved the image of the candle that lights itself. No matter what your particular attitude might be—whether you identify with the wife who wants to be rid of the candle because it reminds her of Miguel's love for Santiago, or whatever—the point remains that candle is going to stay lit. I'm not sure I can explain to you the feeling I received from that image of the candle that lights itself or stays perpetually lit, but as an image it holds resonant meanings.

Fuentes-León: I discovered as I was writing the script what the candle would be. I didn't know at the beginning that it was going to become a recurrent symbol. At the beginning it was more like, "Okay, I think it would be cool if Santiago gives Mariela something."

Guillén: As a little props detail, was it difficult finding that candle? How did you know you had the right candle?

Fuentes-León: I went with the art director to a market in Lima where that style of candle is very Peruvian and you find them everywhere. They're colorful and decorated with golden or silver carvings. At first, we had decided upon a blue candle because we wanted blue objects to represent the ocean. For example, the wall of Miguel's living room is blue. But when we found the purple candle—and that was actually the color of the candle written in the script—we felt it was right. In Peru, purple is a color also associated with religious processions in Lima of the purple Christ, which happens in October. Purple is a color that is instantly recognized in Lima or throughout Peru as a religious color. So when we went to this market, we decided we wanted a candle that had both blue and purple and we asked them if they could make us 10 of them, which they did.

Guillén: I'm not sure if you know this but within the tradition of the Americas—certainly among the Mayan culture—the color purple, the actual pigment, came from sea snails and thus your candle has this ancient connection with the sea.

Fuentes-León: Really?! Wow. Thank you. I should have you be beside me each time I talk about my film; you'll make me look smart.

Guillén: [Laughs.] You trust your own instincts. So, returning to your imagery, you have these recurring images which for me are like the bass beats of jazz and which often hold conflicting meanings, and you depict that thin membrane between life and death that we discussed earlier, and yet another fantastical device you use in your film are your temporal displacements. In Undertow, you don't really let us know where anything is specifically happening or when anything is specifically happening. You get a sense it's current, but that it's in the recent past or possibly even in the near future. What are you playing with there? It's a fantastic sense of time but it's close at hand, it's intimate.

Fuentes-León: Once again, I think all those fantastic elements that you lay out fit within this fable. I wanted to create the feeling that this is a story that has been happening for centuries; but, at the same time, it could be the story that your son or your daughter would tell you tomorrow. I wanted Undertow to be one of the constant stories of humanity.

Guillén: Having explored these magical realist elements, let's now get down to earth and current. You might know that there has been a recent debate over whether gay actors can play straight roles as competently as straight actors can play gay roles?

Fuentes-León: Ah yes, the thrash about Promises, Promises?

Guillén: Exactly. Ramin Satoodeh—in a serious lapse of judgment—wrote a lightning-rod column for Newsweek arguing that gay actors could not effectively play straight romantic leads. It's nearly an equal cliché that straight actors can insure an Oscar® nod or win playing a gay role. But not so much attention is given to why gay actors are not offered those substantial gay roles that earn straight actors their statuettes? Not to put you on the spot; but, within the acting pool in Peru, was there not a single gay actor who could have played the role of Santiago?

Fuentes-León: Of the actors that I auditioned in Peru and Colombia, there were a couple that were gay and—to be honest—I would not have said no to their being cast, especially one well-known Peruvian actor who has recently come out (though, actually, he was outed). But the reason I didn't cast him—and I hope that if you publish this it doesn't hurt his feelings—was because what I needed from the character of Santiago was an angel of joy. I needed the audience to fall in love with Santiago. I was thinking particularly of the straight audience I was hoping to reach. I didn't want Santiago to be seen as the seducer who breaks up somebody's home. I've had a lot of straight friends tell me that one of the reasons they didn't like Brokeback Mountain was because they felt Jake Gyllenhaal's character was the seducer, the snake. I never felt that watching Brokeback Mountain but I could see how my straight friends blamed him. So I wanted to make sure that in Undertow Santiago would not be seen that way. This gay Peruvian actor that I mentioned who was interested in playing the role of Santiago would have brought a lot of pathos to the role but not the angelic charisma the character required.

Guillén: Fascinating. Thank you for your candor. Though I understand your decision to cast Manolo Cardona as Santiago—he, indeed, has angelic charisma to spare—I'm still intrigued that as a director you felt this need to cater to the requirements of an audience that would grant more credence to a straight actor playing that gay angel than they would to a gay actor playing that gay angel.

Fuentes-León: To be completely honest, I was looking for the best actor to play Santiago and I was looking for a necessary chemistry between the two actors.

Guillén: Don't misunderstand me, your casting works. And, again, similar to Crab Trap, the urban intruder is a white Colombiano who you might not have even thought was Colombian by contrast to the darker residents of that coastal village. You achieve somewhat the same effect in Undertow. Manolo is fair, blue-eyed, and somewhat opposite physically to Cristian, which speaks to opposites attracting, I guess.

Fuentes-León: But that's also the spectre of Latin America.

Guillén: Researching your film, I appreciated one of Manolo's comments to you. When I read about straight actors playing gay roles there's invariably the boilerplate expression of discomfort in having to fulfill the intimate physicality required of such roles and how they're challenged as actors to overcome it, blah blah blah, but I appreciated that Manolo told you he would have no problem with the gay sexuality if your focus would be on the love between the two men. That then got me wondering if two gay actors playing those roles wouldn't overemphasize the sexual as an expression of that love? That's nearly as hazardous an equation as Ramin Satoodeh's; but, it did cross my mind.

Fuentes-León: I would hope not. I was in complete agreement with Manolo. I needed the love between the two men to be the main thing. It hasn't happened yet—but, maybe it will happen—that some gay people will criticize the movie for not being more sexual. Some folks have mentioned that the sex scenes between Miguel and Mariela are more explicit....

Guillén: But you've staged that, you've explained it, there's a reason for that intensity: Miguel is trying to prove his challenged masculinity.

Fuentes-León: Exactly. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that—whether it would have been Manolo or somebody else—I knew that the love between these two men is what I wanted to show. That is what needed to be communicated. Otherwise, the film would not work. It would not be a love story. It would be more a story of passion.

Guillén: When I first saw Undertow, I wasn't sure if it was a romantic ghost story or if it was a tale of conscience that had romantic elements. I've come to feel that Undertow really isn't a ghost story; it's actually about Miguel's crisis of conscience. It's about how he has to muster the courage to face his love for Santiago within himself and then to acknowledge their love in front of the community by way of the burial ritual. This reminded me of Lino Brocka's You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting (1974).

Fuentes-León: What a great title!

Guillén: Isn't it? Perhaps one of the best. It's taken from a passage in the Bible. It's a film about the necessary confrontation between the individual and the community—where the conscience of a community is stared down by the conscience of the individual—and where the first act of integrity is to square off against an inauthentic community. It's final sequence rhymes with your's.

Fuentes-León: I love that you say that because Undertow is disguised as a ghost story and if people want to stay there, that's fine; but, I really wanted it to be about Miguel's conscience and his struggle. The ghost of Santiago is the representation of that struggle and—as I mentioned earlier—Miguel's mentor. Once Miguel gains his integrity, he has to externalize it. He can't keep it inside himself.

Guillén: This is a somewhat unfair question because I'm not sure it is fair to ask a filmmaker to continue on past their own framed narrative, but what do you think will happen to the relationship between Miguel and Mariela? Will they get back together?

Fuentes-León: I think that he will try to gain Mariela back. He says to his son, "I promise. I will see you soon." He does love her and he definitely wants to be a father. When he says to Mariela, "This is the last thing. I need to do this. In five years, neither of us will forget and—even though he might be gone forever—he will still be a ghost between us." He needed to honor Santiago's memory and put it to peace. I don't believe Miguel will become the kind of man who moves to the city and becomes an active homosexual. When people ask me, "What is Miguel? Is he bisexual? Is he gay?", I realize that one of the reasons I set the film in a rural area is because it's unlike a city where people are swamped and surrounded by labels. Especially in a country like the U.S., labels identify people: you are either a Republican or a Democrat, gay or straight or bisexual, vegetarian or a meat-eater....

Guillén: I call that the process of being hemmed in by lexical imperatives. You move to a city and you have to affiliate yourself with defined identities. I've lived in San Francisco my entire adult life and have constantly struggled with the term "gay" because, for starters, I'm consciously abstinent and have been for quite a while now so I'm no longer sexual and am not sure if I satisfy the term "homosexual" and also I feel the term "gay" has a specific historicity and applies to a particular time and politic. Its usage now is more a reference to a commodified lifestyle. So I'm not exactly sure what I am anymore; but, I have also stopped being as concerned.

Fuentes-León: Which, again, is why I set Undertow in a rural location to undermine that urban compulsion with self-identifying through labels. Rural towns in Peru are not obsessed with labels in the same way. Men do have sex with other men and they honestly do not perceive themselves as gay. Granted, that's also because society doesn't allow them to; but, I guess what I'm trying to say with this roundabout answer, is that I don't think Miguel is going to end up at the YMCA in love with Judy Garland. He'll go back to Mariela. The question is whether Mariela will take him back?

Guillén: I have a sense she will. I believe she will forgive him. My final question then revolves around the film's ending sequence where Miguel commits Santiago's body to the sea. Though with evident reluctance, the community nonetheless participates in the ritual and they don't leave Miguel to do it alone. What that made me consider is that—although the village is admittedly Catholicized and the Catholic religion stands in judgment of homosexuality—memory in and of itself serves a deeper religious impulse than institutionalized Catholicism and it is the communal participation in that religiosity of memory that ultimately unites and heals the community.

Fuentes-León: Not all the village honors the ritual and those that follow Miguel are the young, which was my way of saying that it is the youth of Latin America that will bring about change. They are bringing it. My generation, my friends (including myself) all came out in our late twenties, some haven't come out until their thirties, but I see young people in their late teens and early twenties who are already out, even in countries like Peru. Enough to provide a sense of hope that youth will bring about change.

Guillén: To wrap up here then, let's talk about your future projects. I understand you want to do a film noir piece and a rock musical? Can you talk about those?

Fuentes-León: Yeah! Actually, I have three projects I'm working on. There's a love story again with magical realist elements, this time between a man and a woman. It's about a woman who cannot go into the sunlight because she burns. The story is about a man who has been shot out of a cannon and has crashed through her roof three hours before dawn, leaving a gaping hole in her roof that will let in sunshine that will kill her. Of course, that's where the love story starts. That's actually the first story I ever wrote when I was applying to film school, when I was still practicing medicine. It was a one-act play I wrote that I've turned into a script for a feature film. I actually wrote the first draft of the script before I wrote Undertow; but, it's a bigger film, and Undertow was also a story I needed to tell first.

Guillén: Does it have a working title?

Fuentes-León: Yes, The Woman Who Feared the Sun. Basically in the love story of The Woman Who Feared the Sun, it is through her love that she's finally able to go into the sunlight and actually live her life so—like Undertow—it's a coming out story but a metaphorical one.

The rock musical is called Sinister, which in Latin means "left" but also means evil and menacing, whereas the right is associated with good.

Guillén: This is why I don't trust left-handed people.

Fuentes-León: I am left-handed!!

Guillén: I'm joking.

Fuentes-León: Sinister is basically a Romeo and Juliet kind of story; but, it's set in Suburbia, U.S.A. but at a time when—for some reason—left-handed people are considered bad, aligned with the Devil, and ghettoized in order to be reformed. So the rock musical happens in this ghetto where left-handed people are being reformed and it's a love story between a right-handed boy and a left-handed girl when such a love is not allowed.

Guillén: Are you a musician? You write music?

Fuentes-León: Yes. We haven't really formed a band yet, but I've been writing music with a friend of mine for a long time and I've written pieces on my own that are more like modern rock; but, the songs that I'm saving for the musical are songs that don't really fit with what we want our band to be. They're more earnest and stage-oriented. Sinister is the project I'm most excited about but I feel that I need a little more experience to do it justice.

Clearly, I'm using left-handedness as a metaphor because, first of all, we don't really know how people become left-handed—it's somehow genetic but we haven't found the gene—and nowadays we would find it ridiculous that someone would be discriminated against for being left-handed. But in the ancient past left-handed people were burned alive as witches and even within the time of my grandparents and parents, left-handed children had their left hands tied up so that they would be forced to use their right hands and they were hit if they used their left hands. So just as nowadays we would find it ridiculous for someone to discriminate against the left-handed, hopefully in the future it will be ridiculous for people to discriminate against those who are gay. These are things over which people cannot choose.

09/28/10 UPDATE: Per David Hudson, Raphael Minder on Undertow for The New York Times. I like how Minder characterizes the film's "nonlocal dimension."

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