Wolfe Releasing,

Javier Fuentes-Leon

Manolo Cardona,
Cristian Mercado,
Tatiana Astengo,
Jose Chacaltana
Julio Humberto Cavero,
Juan Pablo Olivos,
Liliana Alegria Saavedra

Unrated, 100 minutes

Kissed By The Sea
by Michael D. Klemm
A shorter version also appeared on, February, 2011
Posted online January, 2011

2009's Undertow (Contracorriente), the debut film from writer/director Javier Fuentes-Leon, may be the finest - and most unique - new queer film this reviewer has seen in some time. Undertow won the Audience Award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and it is also Peru's entry for this year's best foreign film Oscar.

The setting is a small fishing village on the coast of Peru. Cristian Mercado stars as Miguel, a young fisherman who, along with most of the other men in town, casts nets in the waters to make a living. Miguel is poor, but he is happy and has everything he wants. He has an adoring wife, Mariela (Tatiana Astengo), and they are awaiting the birth of their first child. He's active in their church, he blows off steam with his drinking buddies from the boats, and he enjoys the respect of the community. He also has a gay lover on the side.

Manolo Cardona co-stars as Santiago, a young artist who has come to the village to paint. The villagers know that he is homosexual. While he isn't exactly shunned, he is not embraced by the community and his presence is more or less tolerated. The women gossip, the men avoid him, and children throw eggs at his windows. Tongues would really wag if they knew what else was going on. As the film opens, Santiago's affair with Miguel has already been going on for an unspecified time. The two men pretend to be strangers around town but, when they can steal a moment alone, they are hot for each other. They have explosive sex in exotic locations, most notably a very Ansel Adams arch of rock on the seaside. Santiago lovingly photographs Miguel from a distance, and paints him in secret. Miguel leaves covert messages to plan their forbidden trysts.

Santiago wants more from the relationship than Miguel is able, or willing, to give and the two men quarrel. Miguel needs the security that a wife and children provides yet is torn between his two lovers. Santiago sees this and thinks it's best that he leave. Miguel, perplexed, asks "You'll come back, right?" One day, Santiago really does "come back." Miguel comes home to find Santiago sitting in his kitchen. Mariela enters but she doesn't see him. As this surreal scene unfolds, we realize that Miguel is talking to a ghost. Santiago has accidentally drowned in the ocean, dragged in by the strong undertow. Because of his strong emotional ties to the freaked out Miguel, his spirit is trapped in the village. Santiago is confused and scared, and he needs the man he loves to set him free so that his spirit can rest.

Allow me to backtrack for a minute. The story opens with a funeral procession. A relative has died and Miguel has been chosen to "offer" him to God. The villagers assemble to pay their respects and then follow as the dead man is carried on a bier to the ocean. Miguel gives the eulogy and takes the body out on a small boat to bury the deceased at sea. The townsfolk believe that without this long held ritual, steeped in religious tradition, the dead will roam the earth unable to rest. Miguel holds Santiago tight and promises to find his body and "offer" him as he did his cousin. Santiago never believed in the village folklore but, now that he is dead, he asks his beloved to bestow the peace that he needs. This, however, will be the true test of Miguel's love for Santiago. Doing so will reveal their relationship to the community. Will Miguel condemn Santiago to eternal torment or will he do the right thing and risk everything for the man he loves?

Ironically, in death, Santiago is finally able to be open with his paramour. Because no one besides Miguel can see him, the clandestine lovers are at last able to walk hand in hand openly through the village streets. It is a striking, and joyous, image. Santiago is a flesh and blood ghost; they play soccer, they wrestle in the sand, they make love. In one cute scene, Santiago helps Miguel cheat at cards. Miguel wants these idyllic times together to last for as long as possible and so he says nothing when he finds Santiago's body trapped under the water. He is enjoying the best of both worlds and, later, he asks Santiago if he would consider remaining. The painter replies, "Now, you finally ask me to stay?"

Undertow is a thoroughly delightful film. It unfolds with the simplicity of a fable. Richly drawn characters suck us into a nuanced and layered story. The script construction is superb; Fuentes-Leon is a master storyteller. This is a film, and not a novel, and his visuals also deliver the goods. The sun drenched photography is as beautiful as the coastline. I was often reminded of the beach scenes in Fellini's La Dolce Vita. This could have been just another tragic tale of forbidden love in a town without pity but the supernatural element takes us into another realm entirely. The best ghost stories are the ones that avoid the usual cliches and you won't see any ethereal over-exposed glows or hear any spooky music here. This is also a study of small town homophobia that treats the subject without beating the audience over the head and the ghost story plays a big role in accomplishing this.

To call these villagers "old school" would be an understatement. Religion and tradition is everything. When "the painter" vanishes, no one seems concerned. Many are glad that he is gone. It would not be good if news of his affair with Miguel were known. But there wouldn't be any third act drama if it stays a secret. The town gossip's teenaged daughter breaks into Santiago's abandoned house to tryst with her boyfriend and finds a painting. Gossip and rumors spread. When Miguel's son is born, none of his fishing buddies come by the house to drink his health.

Miguel is forced to confront what it means to be a man in a culture where masculinity is everything. Santiago calls him a coward who thinks being a man is having a wife and kids. "There are hundreds of ways to be a man," he shouts, "and you are none of them!" Miguel finally realizes that part of being a man is being totally honest, and he has been selfish to both of the people he loves. The wife's story, and her part in this triangle, is equally important. Her feelings in this tragedy are also rightly known and felt. She and Santiago both play the betrayed diva, and Miguel is very much the duplicitous tenor.

Undertow is a very sad film but it is a sadness that you relish like a tragic opera, reveling in the intense emotions. But Fuentes-Leon also knows how to keep the melodrama in check and he finds a terrific balance. Its middle section is a pure delight; a love story like no other. Consider this image: Miguel watches television, his pregnant wife asleep against his side. He invites Santiago to join them. The ghost sits down next to him and Miguel happily takes, and holds, his hand because he can do so without fear of discovery. It's a beautiful moment, one of many that are tender without being maudlin. A sense of humor peppers these scenes. After a lush romantic interlude where the tide crashes over the two men doing it on a moonlit beach, Miguel wakes up naked in the sand and the village priest is standing over him. When Miguel makes love to his wife, he suddenly sees Santiago sitting next to the bed. "I'm sorry," the ghost says, "You think of me and I show up."

All three leads are exceptional. Manolo Cardona is reportedly "the Brad Pitt of Peru" and he is certainly a very handsome man. It is very plausible that Miguel would risk his marriage for a man like him. Cristian Mercado, as Miguel, generates onscreen heat with both of his lovers. The passion they all share is the battery that drives this film. Undertow is an emotional powerhouse and one of the most moving films I have ever seen.

A reader once wrote to The Advocate that he hated Brokeback Mountain because it was just another gay story with an unhappy ending. It's unfortunate that most of the best queer films are still tragedies (Maurice, Kiss of the Spider Woman) but it's also true that forbidden love stories resonate on primal levels more than romantic comedies. This isn't just a gay thing. Historically this goes back as far as Gilgamesh. Shakespeare gave us Romeo and Juliet, which is actually a retread of the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe. It's retold again as The Fantasticks. A more modern example of doomed love from opposite sides of the track is Titanic. And, of course, there is our own Brokeback Mountain. These stories stir our souls. They are larger than life. It is impossible not to be sucked into Undertow.