By David-Elijah Nahmod
Li Cheng's Jose is a gay drama like no other. Shot entirely in Guatemala, a country where poverty and violence are the norms and where it isn't safe to be gay, the film is a groundbreaking look at what it is like to be gay in Central America. Jose was produced entirely with a Guatemalan cast, all of whom should be commended for the courage they display by appearing in this film.
Jose is 19 years old. He lives in Guatemala City, an impoverished, run-down metropolis with his deeply religious mom. They live a hard life. Mom (Ana Cecilia Mota) spends her days selling homemade sandwiches at bus stops--she is constantly being chased away by the police because she doesn't have the proper licenses to operate her business. Jose (Mayan actor Enrique Salanic) works at a restaurant, where he runs sandwiches to take out customers in cars. It's a dead-end job, but he and his mom are grateful for the income.
Jose spends his free time cruising street corners and dating apps on his phone so he can have quick hookups with other young men in the area. Director Cheng does not hold back in the scenes where Jose is seen having sex--he and his tricks appear onscreen fully nude, kissing each other on the lips, a daring thing to do so publicly in a country like Guatemala.
Something happens when Jose meets Luis (Manolo Herrera), a handsome young construction worker. The two develop romantic feelings for each other, something Jose has never experienced before. Luis wants the two of them to move away and build a life together, but Jose cannot bring himself to leave his mother, who needs him as much as he needs her.
Shot in a documentary style with a minimal amount of background music, Jose effectively captures the harsh day to day realities of indigenous life in this impoverished country. The film also captures the emptiness of gay life in a place where remaining "discreet" is a necessary part of existence.
Fundamentalist religion is a big part of life in Guatemala, and this doesn't make things any easier for Jose. As he rides a bus to work, a man stands before all the passengers, preaching the gospel. His mom prays for him regularly and asks him to pray with her. It's an oppressive environment, but Jose makes the best of it.
The cast, most of whom are making their film debuts, does good work. Salanic is particularly good in the title role, effectively conveying the emotions of a young man who has accepted the realities of his life. Mota is superb as the world-weary mom who struggles to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. God and her son are her comforts in life. She knows that things aren't going to get any better, despite her daily prayers.
Cheng, who is actually Asian but who moved to Guatemala to make the film, does a marvelous job in guiding his cast. He beautifully captures the gritty realities of life in this hard country.
Jose is not a pleasant film to watch, but it is a gripping one. It’s the first Guatemalan and Central American film to be shown at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Queer Lion Award. It's an eye-opening look at a society where LGBTQ people are not free to truly be themselves, a stark reminder of how much work needs to be done so that LGBTQ people everywhere can live free and authentic lives.
The film is in Spanish with English subtitles. It opens February 14 at the Harkins Valley Art Cinema in Tempe. www.harkins.com