Directed by: Javier Fuentes-León
Produced by: Javier Fuentes-León
Written by: Javier Fuentes-León; Julio Rojas
Starring: Cristian Mercado; Manolo Cardona; Tatiana Astengo
Cinematography: Mauricio Vidal
Release date(s): 23 September 2009
Running time: 100 minutes
There is a scene in the middle of Javier Fuentes-León’s Contracorriente (Undertow, 2009), a Peruvian film which was the country’s official entry to the Oscars, which explains subtly, but in no uncertain terms, the psychology of closet and coming out. Miguel, (Cristian Mercado), handsome and young, is a married man, with a son on the way, and a leader of sort for the fisherman community in Cabo Blanco, a small fishing village in the Northern coast of Peru, where the community has deep-rooted religious traditions. He also has a secret: He is having an affair with another man, Santiago (Manolo Cardona), a painter who is ostracised by the townsfolk for being agnostic and open about his sexuality.
Now, Santiago is dead, and his ‘ghost’ or whatever you may call it, comes to visit Miguel. As he had always done it, Miguel goes to meet him at a deserted spot near the sea, away from prying eyes. This time, Satiago insists on a walk through the town, claiming that no one except Miguel can see him. At first, Miguel is not certain about the claim; he takes a few tentative steps and nervously walks beside Santiago. As they continue, the townsfolk start greeting Miguel without any sign of recognising Santiago. When Miguel is finally convinced that no one but him can see Santiago, he drops his guard, his fear and nervousness, and reaches for Santiago’s hand. This lovely scene, in a long shot with the couple walking, explains the dynamics of coming out in the context of queer sexuality. We behave the way we do because society around us conditions us to do so. If our surrounding were not so hostile, it would be easier for us to express our true feelings for others.
Contracorriente, Javier Fuentes-León’s first feature, which won the audience choice award at the Sundance two years back and numerous other awards at numerous film festivals, is not a love story; it’s not even a queer film per se. It’s a story about a man’s journey to be true to himself despite the odds, braving the chance of losing everything he holds dear.
It’s interesting how the film, which could have been a bitter melodrama about adultery with a gay angle, becomes a queer wish fulfilment with a good measure of magic realism thrown in (it’s an Latin American production after all; and it plays more realistically than Demi Moore’s Ghost ever could), and finally appears to be a drama about choices we will have to make, sooner or later.
Considering Contracorriente as a gay film, what is admirable about the movie is how instead of establishing the growing love between the two men as is the wont of most queer films, the film approaches their love as given. There’s apparent class difference between Miguel and Santiago, one is a fisherman and another a city-bred painter. Their relationship began as a painter and a model. But attraction between the two is mutual. But Miguel is wary. He knows where to draw the line. He knows others won’t appreciate his ‘friendship’ with Santiago. He has duties towards his pregnant wife, towards the church, towards the community. Santiago knows it too.
Then Santiago dies as he was pulled away in the wave. This incident gives the film it’s name. And, in a typical magic realist fashion, Garcia Marquez would be proud, he comes to haunt Miguel. In the beginning of the film, the story establishes a myth about the community who offer their dead a burial at sea, and believe that unless it is done properly, the soul would never find peace (Director Fuentes-León clarifies in an interview that there’s no such ritual in Peru, it was invented for the sake of the film.). Santiago, who never believed in such mumbo-jumbos, finds himself in the limbo. He then requests Miguel to find his body and give it a proper burial.
Miguel dives deep into the sea and after several tries, finds the body. Now, something else was happening. Santiago’s death has empowered Miguel to live both his lives. He can now be a family man, and be with his lover all at once. There is a nice scene of them watching TV, Miguel, his wife, and his lover. Perfect. So, he decides to keep Santiago trapped in the world, and tells him that he could not find the body.
But the peace is short-lived. Someone wanders into Santiago’s deserted house and finds a nude painting of Miguel. Soon, the news spreads that Miguel is a fag, and his community does not take it lightly. At first, he denies the whole thing, but could not hide the truth from his wife. She is upset at first, but reconciles saying that they should put everything behind for the sake of their son, for the community. Miguel does that and in a heartbreaking scene, parts ways with Santiago.
But the question of integrity wouldn’t leave Miguel. And when they finally find Santiago body, Miguel must decide whether he wants to set free his lover’s soul.
It’s a tricky business to make a supranational love story work in a realistic setting. In Contracorriente, however, the appearances of Santiago does not hinder the flow of the story, for the film is not about their love, but Miguel’s reaction to his own feeling. It doesn’t take anything from the tale if we consider the appearances of Santiago as figment of Miguel's imagination. And, the way Cristian Mercado plays Miguel, as young, caring and man of integrity, that the audience is drawn towards his dilemma. You cannot really blame Miguel in the context of identity politics.
Regarding the question whether Miguel is gay or bi, director Fuentes-León (an open gay man) in an interview said, it’s not a valid question in the context of Miguel (or in the context of societies where homosexuality is not even recognised). These labels are cultural constructs popularised in America. For people like Miguel, sexuality is much more fluid, much more complicated, which cannot be contained and labelled.
It is heartening to see how queer cinema has matured from the days of new queer cinema movement — from the arty take of the closet, to the teen-age angst of Gregg Araki (he remains an important filmmaker just for the brilliant Mysterious Skin, the best film ever made on the issues of child abuse; his latest Kaboom has recently released) to the existentialism of Gus Van Sant, and everything in between, including the Technicolour worlds of Pedro Almodovar. It is also interesting to observe how most of these films are being made outside the US, in unlikely places like Philippines (Brillante Mendoza) or Israel (Eytan Fox) or Korea (No Regrets). But not in India, where queer cinema movement remains largely amateurish, barring perhaps My Brother Nikhil.
An Interview With Javier Fuentes-León in twitch.