(Ya no estoy aqui)
dir: Fernando Frías de la Parra
It’s an… interesting film. I don’t know whether the intention was for it to screen in cinemas ever, but it ended up on Netflix fairly early in its life, and so I felt compelled to watch it.
What intrigued me about it simply from the perspective of the images used to advertise it, is that I had no idea what it was about based on the images they promoted it with, being images of the main character Ulises (Juan Daniel Garcia Treviña) and nothing else. The thing is, though, that he has such a distinctive look, such an arresting appearance and manner, that you’d be forgiven making certain assumptions, which, if they were anything like mine, would be totally off the mark.
What I mean is, even if you watched the trailer for this film, you wouldn’t guess it was about aching loneliness.
Ulises, at the beginning of the film, is fleeing from where he lives, in Monterrey, Mexico. And then he’s in Queens, New York. So the film follows two parallel lines, being the lead up to why he fled from Mexico, and then his experiences in the States. It’s not complicated keeping them apart, because you know what’s going to happen in one time line versus the other, but you might not get the “why” of it.
Let’s not glide over the fact that the main character’s name is Ulises. Ulises = Ulysses, and Ulysses = Odysseus, hero of legend, from whom we get the word “odyssey”. This is Ulises’ odyssey, as he is cast adrift from all he knows, ill-equipped to live in either world, either his old one or the new one.
In Monterrey, being a kid, he lives to hang out with his fellow Los Terkos. They’re a gang, but not in the sense that people use that term to describe the violence going on between the cartels. They’re a gang that lives for music and dancing. They love a specific type of music, called Kolombia or cumbia, they dance a specific way, and they live only to represent their group in dance gatherings and for getting call outs on the local radio station that plays this music.
Now, I’m not going to pretend I have some deep appreciation of the music or the culture, or pretend I have any understanding of any of it. The film’s point is not that a) the music and lifestyle is amazing and everyone should love it or b) cumbia or Kolombia is a sub-culture that explains life in Mexico or the way anyone else should live, wherever they might live.
There are aspects of it that are pretty unique, or distinct, or pretty much like nothing you’ve seen or heard before. A major component of it is particular song tracks slowed down to a third of their speed, so a 5 minute song becomes a 15 epic, trying as they are not to let anything end. And the oversized clothing? Well, I don’t know, it’s not that different from the cholo stuff in the States with the oversized jerseys and t-shirts that go past the knee. The hairstyles are fairly busy, fairly complicated. No-one has a look as complicated as Ulises’, which is why he’s their leader, I guess.
It’s strange watching this tightly-knit group of kids go about their daily lives. They’re not in school, and they don’t work, so they scrounge for money, occasionally bullying some young kids into giving them some money so they can go buy more cumbia tracks. But they’re not crims. They are, however, surrounded by serious gangs, with guns, who kill people for territory or just for the fuck of it. Ulises had a brother in one of these gangs, which gives him a tiny bit of cover, but he has no interest in joining in with the violence.
I make statements like “Ulises likes this, or doesn’t like that” and I’m telling you, I’m reaching. A Lot. Ulises is one of the most inscrutable and least demonstrative of characters I’ve ever seen. There are the odd occasions where he expresses himself emphatically, but most of the time you will not know what he’s thinking. He lives only to dance, and to listen to his music. He cannot stand any other kind of music; he cannot stand being told not to listen to his music.
His experiences in the States are not of the “immigrant reaching the land of opportunity and making it after a number of harrowing experiences” kind. From the start he knows no English whatsoever. His unique look mostly gets him mocked, even by other people of Mexican extraction. With the ones he can communicate with, he’s surly. With the ones he can’t communicate with, due to the language and care factor barrier, he’s hostile. It’s hard to know what he wants or expects.
His meager circumstances in the States get even more precarious, and he spends much of his time homeless, or couch-surfing / squatting. The brief moments where he tries to connect with home, he is rebuffed. So he is unwelcome in the States, and has no motivation to fit in or improve his circumstances (plus let’s not forget he’s a kid), and can’t go back to Monterrey because they’ll kill him or his family or both.
It’s an impossible situation, and there is no magical, benevolent force out there that will come to his rescue. The one lifeline he is thrown, in terms of interest and kindness shown him by an Asian-American girl in Queens called Lin (Xueming Angelina Chen), he’s even ruder to her than he is to anyone else.
He’s a frustrating character, even if we acknowledge and accept a lot of the reasons for his behavior. When he has the brainstorm of combining his love of cumbia with trying to earn some cash by dancing his beloved dances in the subway, a very large homeless guy lurches up to him and just yells “STOP!”, which is very harsh criticism, not at all constructive or fair, scaring him off.
We know Ulises lives most when he’s dancing. You see it, maybe you feel it. But this isn’t a Saturday Night Fever type of situation where someone hopes to transcend their working class or below status in poverty through the one thing they’re good at, hoping to somehow make it big in the Big City, by making the thing they love, and that other people value them for, into their lifeline.
That’s a fantasy, one which we appreciate as art, but acknowledge the rarity of in the real world. This flick trades in flat, grinding reality, however beautifully it is shot, and it is very beautifully shot. The view from an unfinished or abandoned apartment block in Monterrey where the Terkos often congregate, showing the city as it is, one of the most prosperous in Mexico, yet where the kids live in grinding poverty, is still an amazing one. It’s breathtaking, but it’s also a reminder.
By the halfway point of the film, we get the reveal of how Ulises accidentally got into a situation which saw him blamed for real gang member’s deaths, and why we had to flee, and we see the injustice of the situation beyond what any stern lecture could deliver. Here was Ulises with his best mates in the world, loving a thing that might be odd to others, but hurt no-one, that kept them apart from mainstream Monterrey society, but also gave them a fragile existence outside of the orbit of the hardcore gangs, and it’s not enough. It’s taken away from him and from them, as we see in the end, because the world is often not a kind place.
The film doesn’t make us want to sympathise with Ulises because of the unfair things that happen to him (let me add that this flick is not an exercise in miserablism: it’s not about piling indignity and humiliation upon someone who refuses to crack or reject his culture) or think that Ulises somehow has some ethnic secret that the other people around him should appreciate or emulate. That would be strange. And even though Ulises, as we see towards the end of the film, falls afoul of the dreaded ICE, the point isn’t that ICE are terrible people who victimise the most vulnerable because of the dictates of the giant orange Oompa Loompa currently in charge (the story itself is set in 2011, for some reason); it’s not as if it’s not his own fault or unwelcome when it happens. By the end of the story he has absolutely nothing, not even a family to go back to, or a crew anymore, but he does have the view.
Going back to the scenes with Lin, those are kind of the scenes that hurt the most. Lin seems genuinely interested in Ulises and in his well-being. She turns a blind eye to his squatting above her granddad’s shop in Queens, she actively tries to communicate with him in Spanish, she tries to get him engaged with her life, gives him a dictionary to help get by, and he’ll have none of it. If anything he seems irritated by her most of the time, until he rebuffs her one time too many, and she comes to the entirely reasonable conclusion that she’s wasting her time and efforts trying to help him.
It’s a shame, a damn shame, but, see, he put in absolutely no effort and look what he got. Look, I know he’s a surly jerk, and usually I don’t empathise with surly jerks, unless the surly jerk is me, crying in the mirror, as he gazes at himself wondering where it all went wrong (maybe it was all the times I was a surly jerk to people), but I do, perhaps against my will, empathise with Ulises here. He lives by a code, by an aesthetic, by a lifestyle that is non-commercial, not a commodity, and not only doesn’t the world allow for it, it is indifferent to it. Sure, the world gives him the incentive to grind off his edges or simplify his look to escape scrutiny or mockery of strangers, but it gives him no safety or surety in return. He’s fucked anyway.
I don’t think this curious film’s purpose was to depress us. Yes, it’s fairly melancholic, and it laments the passing of a sliver of time, of a strange little sub-culture that the world doesn’t give a fuck about anymore and didn’t then either. It hints at the joys of Mexican life and culture being swamped by the rise of the cartels and the government’s efforts to fight them, and to prevent civilians taking the side of the cartels, but it points to the difficulty of trying to find some third path between them, and trying to live your life without being hassled or killed for it. It’s about longing to belong, and longing for home, when home no longer exists.
It’s unlikely that it’ll make you a fan of this strange music, and I don’t think that was the purpose. Loneliness is universal, and aching is part of the human condition, that for many of us music alleviates, if only a bit, for a while.
None of that detracts from Ulises being a compelling and difficult character, with as much of a right to live the way he wanted as the rest of us, with everything stacked up against him, and with a right to his pain beyond anything he ever gets to say or express in any way other than through his dancing.
7 times I’d like to do a shout out to all the homies, the living and the dead, but especially the living out of 10
“Terko: someone stubborn, resistant to change regarding his/her attitude” – nevertheless, he persisted - I’m No Longer Here