I’m not a fan of coming out movies. American gay films tend to be kitsch, camp and superficial. Everything is for laughs, and after a while the laughs get tired, especially when all these coming out films cover the same issues pretty much the same way. My favorite gay themed film is ‘Lilies’ from Canada back in 1996. It was a powerful story imaginatively told. Being a closeted gay was an issue and a pivotal force to the ensuing action which far exceeded the problems of keeping a boyfriend or getting acceptance from one’s family. It was a real story set in a fairytale land (pardon the pun).
Now, finally, another coming out film that is powerful, unsentimental and honest in its depictions of social issues, forbidden love, emotional conflicts and morality — and it’s got a ghost! This one, ‘Undertow,’ is Peruvian, set in a little fishing village about a married fisherman who is in love with an openly gay artist. It’s hard enough being gay in the most backward U.S. subculture, but in a microcosm of machismo there are no options, no San Francisco to escape to, no living with neighbors who know you’re gay.
Miguel (Cristian Mercado) loves his wife (Tatiana Astengo) who is expecting their first son. He loves her physically and emotionally. He loves his life as a fisherman among his friends, relatives and neighbors in this close knit community. And as much as he is in denial, he loves Santiago (Manolo Cardona). Miguel has tried to figure out a way to conduct his clandestine relationship without being exposed. Never be seen together; never discuss Santiago, even in passing; laugh at the homophobic jokes with his friends; travel by boat to a distant beach to meet with Santiago; never let Santiago take photos or paint him. It all seems to be working until one day Santiago goes missing. Eventually, his drowned body is discovered. Now, here’s the problem. Santiago’s ghost haunts Miguel with the one request that he is buried with the religious rights practiced in this village so he can finally rest. And here’s the kicker — Miguel likes Santiago hanging around in his same old corporeal self. Finally, Miguel can walk down the street holding Santiago’s hand without fear. No one can see Santiago but Miguel. They spend lots of time together, Miguel unafraid and happy. Santiago insists he must go; he needs the rites performed. For Miguel to comply, he has to come out, lose his wife and son, his place in this ideal little society, well, ideal except for it’s homophobia. This is when he learns what it really is to be a man, to stand for what he believes in, to do the right thing.
Just recounting the story line of the film explains why it is such a powerful and original film. Watching the look on Miguel’s face as he walks down the street with Santiago unafraid for the first time is in itself is exhilarating and poignant to the point of tears. Also, the village could easily become a tourist destination after this film — it’s so lovely, the ocean and surrounding hills so picturesque. The cinematography by Mauricio Vidal is often breathtaking. The direction by Javier Fuentes-Leon is subtle and convincing, as are the performances of the actors. This mature and polished work is doubly surprising coming from a first time feature filmmaker. I’m so glad he gave up his medical career to take up filmmaking. I look forward to his future projects.
Director/writer: Javier Fuentes-Leon:
Cast: Manolo Cardona, Tatiana Astengo, Cristian Mercado
Time: 100 min.
Opens September 17 at the Bridge Theatre in San Francisco