VIFF 2014 Review: Güeros
Mexico has delivered a lot of unique films over the years. One such film that has caught festival attention is Güeros which is filmed entirely in black and white. It makes for a unique story and a unique message within the story.
The film begins with Tomas, a young teenager from Veracruz, getting in trouble for tossing a water balloon off the top of his apartment. It lands on a baby. The baby’s fine but the mother’s had it with him and sends him to his student brother in Mexico City. There he meets his brother Federico, nicknamed ‘Sombra,’ who is supposed to be in university but the college is under strike for five months and has become almost threatening territory. Instead he lives in an evaded apartment with his friend Santos. One of the first things Santos notices is how Tomas is unlike his dark-skinned brother. He’s a Guero: a Mexican of light skin and hair. The apartment they live in is without electricity until Aurora, a mentally impaired girl in the suite down below, hands them an orange cord to steal electricity. It’s not easy for Sombra especially since the nights are cold and he has a hard enough time trying to sleep with the images of tigers in his mind because of his panic attacks but he has put up with it since the beginning. Their one getaway is the car but Sombra is too nervous to leave. Possibly because of his panic attacks.
Tomas already finds the first few days frustrating with limited time for electricity and relying on his Walkman to hear the music of Epigmenio Cruz and his camera to take pictures whenever he wants to. Epigmenio Cruz is no ordinary musician to the boys. He was a musician that ‘made Bob Dylan cry’ and almost launched Mexican rock into the mainstream. Then Tomas reads that Epigmenio was admitted to the hospital with cirrhosis of the liver. Tomas wants to meet him but Sombra won’t let him. Tomas then leaves in a fit of anger, especially after three hellish days of living with what Sombra puts up with. To make matters worse, the neighbors down below find out Sombra’s scheme to get electricity and the father chases after them. It’s then that they finally find Tomas who left to find Epigmenio. Sombra’s reluctant to leave the apartment but agrees to do so temporarily. It’s in the trip to the hospital to find Epigmenio that Sombra’s panic attacks come back.
At the hospital, they don’t find him there. They know he’s still alive but information of his whereabouts are kept secret. In the pursuit to find Epigmenio, the three boys first encounter a gang of thugs. Fortunately they leave before they could get into any more trouble. Then they come across a garden of carrots where they can finally have a chance to eat some real food. The next place they head to is the campus but Sombra is hesitant as he knows how dangerous it is. The three are able to make it in there where they’re able to retrieve Sombra’s girlfriend Ana, one of the activist leaders during the strike. Ana shows all the territories of the strike where the students set up their living quarters. Ana soon agrees to go with the boys to find Epigmenio before he dies.
Along the journey, they go to the city zoo and aquarium and Ana is able to help Sombra confront his fear over tigers. They go across the rich area of town and amongst people staring at their smart phones. They also go to the outer part of the city where they encounter store thugs and a boy who drops a brick from a bridge. Yeah, more bad apples in all shapes and sizes. They also come across a woman who was actually a model for the album of Epigmenio’s the boys have. They’re even introduced to his drawings. It’s right after they learn of his restaurant whereabouts of his that they leave town. This leads them to their destination and finally their chance. After the outcome, they return to the campus in the midst of the protest which Ana joins immediately and Sombra approaches without fear and with no panic attack whatsoever.
The thing about the film is that you think it’s going to be about a certain thing but no matter what you thought it would be about, it’s about something else too. And something you didn’t expect it to be about. I first thought it would be about Tomas growing up or learning something about student life at first. I’m sure most of you thought it was about that trip to see Epigmenio. Even though it was about that as far as the plot is concerned, it’s about more. I’ve sensed it’s about Mexico and its art. The boys are immersed in Epigmenio’s music but they also see and hear other art. They hear the poem Ana says as it talks of the struggle of Mexican people and hope coming from it. We hear Mexican music. We see art amongst the student protesters. We see the superficiality of the rich. We see the pettiness and the struggle of the poor from all sides. We’re also given the plot of student protests. A key factor since news has come out about killing and abductions during student protests in Mexico. Then the four meet Epigmenio for the first time and they tell his they realized why his music means so much to Mexicans including their late father and themselves. Interesting that we never know if they got his autograph or not.
Spoiler Alert: For discussion of the theme, the ending will be revealed in this paragraph. I think that what the top point of what the film was. There was the point of the hardships Mexican people have gone through before and now it’s the young’s turn to be fighters for a better tomorrow. But the top point I believe was to take a visual snapshot at Mexican life through all the four experience both on campus and throughout their trip all over Mexico and show what makes the message of hope in Mexican art. Then the film ends with Tomas taking a picture of his brother in the midst of the protest. It’s like his picture is the making of Tomas’ art. Sometimes in looking back I often think that the scene where Tomas and the three others approaching Epigmenio is almost like the ‘passing of the torch’ of Mexican artistry from Epigmenio who’s near death to Tomas who’s young and full of pictures to take.
Interesting that this is Alonso Ruiz Palacios’ first ever feature-length film. He’s done short films and television before but this is his first feature-length and it’s an excellent work. Sebastian Aguirre also did very good as Tomas. He did a very honest portrayal of a young Mexican teen that wasn’t too over the top or showy. Tenoch Huerta and Ilse Salas were both good in their supporting roles. Sometimes you’re tempted to think the film’s about them. A bonus note is that Gael Garcia Bernal is an associate producer of this film. Unique that a story like this can attract a big name like him. The film has already won awards like Best Debut Feature at the Berlin Film Festival as well as Best New Narrative Feature and Cinematography In A Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Fest
Güeros is a unique Mexican film that is worth watching. It’s been said ‘the journey is the destination.’ Such is the case here where the journey is an eye-opener for the four and a message of hope for young Mexicans.