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First Look Review - JOSÉ

jose review
A gay teen in Guatemala embarks on a secret relationship with an immigrant.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Li Cheng

Starring: Enrique Salanic, Manolo Herrera, Ana Cecilia Mota, Jhakelyn Waleska Gonzalez Gonzalez, Esteban Lopez Ramirez

jose poster



I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker for what it was, which was a nice morning in the cinema: bit of a cry, a few thrills and yet more spills. I’m not particularly tied to Star Wars either way, and, while I can see the later films’ flaws and wasted potential, I don’t particularly feel that strongly about them, or the franchise in general. Except. Except [SPOILER FOR MONTH OLD FILM ALERT] for that bit which makes it very clear - no way indeed, not him AT ALL, uhuh! - that Poe isn’t in The Gays after all. That visibly awkward shoe horning in of Keri Russell’s (adore her) character as a potential shag for our Han expy. Like, there is no real other reason for her to be there apart from to reassure… who exactly? Who cares? These are films for kids. Kids don’t care about stuff like that. In Star Wars, in The Avengers, et al, sexuality is irrelevant: these are archetypes, not characters, after all (but, having said that, can you imagine if Poe had been in love with Finn and the relationship had narrative function? The Han/Leia dynamic which was weirdly absent from the trilogy could have been fulfilled, instead of hedged between rewrites and rehauls, and the various dead ends which they led to). Yes, there was The Gay Kiss At The End, but one can’t help but be cynical and read this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment as a sop against any potential homophobia. Because that’s what this unnecessary character dynamic felt like. You might even say it was ‘forced’ in? (btw, I reckon in the multi-species Star Wars galaxy they’re up to all sorts. Chewbacca is a dog. There is a slug gangster. Our primitive sexualities, our genders, in fact, must seem very quaint indeed against the interspecies love of the galaxy. And also, while we’re on the topic, for a fantastic Star Wars saga featuring a gay character whose matter of fact sexuality doesn’t define her, then please may I recommend Keiron Gillan and, latterly, Si Spurrier’s Doctor Aphra comic: so much immoral dark side fun).

jose review

The reason why Poegate got on my tits so much was because it’s an unwelcome reminder to us all that someone, somewhere is concerned that their characters could be interpreted as anything other than a lantern jawed straight. You forget, don’t you? Living in the liberated Western world. It isn’t like we live in, say, Guatemala City, which is one of the world’s most impoverished and religious areas: perfect circumstances for blind hatred and homophobia (legal recognition of same-sex relationships is still non-existent in Guatemala).

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In José, Li Cheng’s (with co-writing support from George F. Roberson) drama, we witness this from the point of view of the titular character (played by Enrique Salanic), a gay 19-year-old, who is deeply closeted from his family (a manipulative older mother) and his work mates (José’s job involves hanging out on street corners directing held up traffic to various fast food eateries ☹). The cinematography of José’s daily life is pure neorealism with car horns and distant city noises making up the ambient sounds, and flattened wide-angle shots grimly depicting the slums where José lives and works.

jose review

Life is made worth living by the prolific hook-ups that José enjoys on the downlow, which take place always in the darkened rooms of (mmmm) seedy hotels. The cinematography deepens in these scenes, which are intensely sensual and vivid (and, for their erotic realism, I’d bet that these scenes were a large factor in the film, justly, winning the amazingly named Queer Lion award at Venice). Lighting as rich and dark as chocolate, and close intimate angles hide our boys away from the real world.

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Problem is, of course, that one of José’s hook-ups - Luis (Manolo Herrera) a Caribbean immigrant - ends up falling for him. José sort of feels the same but going public with Luis would mean every aspect of his existence having to change, along with the lingering self-reproach which the lad has yet to confront. To illustrate, there is a very moving sequence where the men take a ride into the country via motorbike for some al fresco canoodling, the choice of vehicle allowing them the physical contact and closeness that would otherwise have to be disguised. Like I say, you forget.

jose review

And this is why films like José are important: for every José and Luis in territories such as this, where their sexuality makes them not only outlaws to all intents and purposes, but also prone to violence and alienation from even those close to them (one of the characters has a scar from a homophobic attack from his own brother). It’s beautiful that people like Cheng are making these films, when dominant studios like Disney are too gutless to even allow audiences to fantasise that maybe one of their fictional onscreen characters may be anything other than heterosexual. Most importantly though (as this is a film review, not a rhetoric, after all), ideology aside, José is a perfectly enjoyable film, with superb performances and a gentle, gliding pace. It’s a bit like an (even more) gay Brief Encounter, I suppose. I’m glad films like José exist. However, I do look forward to the day when they don’t have to.

José is in US cinemas from January 31st. A UK/ROI release has yet to be announced.


2020 film reviews