Love is Bolder Than Death: Naranjo Returns to his Roots with Lo-Fi Melodrama
All’s fair in guerilla love and warfare, at least from the male’s perspective in Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo’s first narrative film in nine years, Kokoloko. In essence, the film is a scrappy, roughhewn return to the filmmaker’s roots, recalling the indie formulations of both Drama/mex (2006) and I’m Gonna Explode (2008). Naranjo’s last feature, his 2011 breakout Miss Bala, was a festival circuit darling which then found him attached to a variety of high-profile Hollywood products (including, at one point, a remake of Death Wish, which eventually became the property of Eli Roth).
With his low-budget English language debut Viena and the Fantomes still awaiting a premiere in some fashion, his greatest critical success even received a lackluster American remake in 2019 via Catherine Hardwicke. His latest, a blood-soaked sexcapade on the Oaxacan Coast (shot back in 2016), is a reminder of his formidable visual and narrative stylings, arriving like a sun-dappled nightmare from an old cinema scrapbook languishing in some lost and found bin.
Marisol (Alejandra Herrera) is a waifish young woman stuck between a rock and a hard place in her small, seaside town. A full-fledged sexual affair with the much older Mundo (Noe Hernandez) has sparked the ire of her jealous cousin Mauro (Eduardo Mendizabal), who views Marisol as his property. Both men are either involved with or desire to join a group of local guerillas, which eventually finds Mundo forced to migrate to California due to some off-screen dilemmas. Mauro uses this as an opportunity to sour their relationship by sowing seeds of doubt about Mundo. But his attempts to keep them apart, which includes, on more than one occasion, literal abduction, makes their eventual, secretive reunion even more intense, leading to a violent showdown between the men who desire to maintain control of her.
The narrative underpinnings of Kokoloko play like a classic Greek tragedy, the star-crossed lovers Marisol and Mundo engaged in a perilous, pock-marked romance which suggests something Argentinean filmmaker Matias Pineiro might have staged with Romeo and Juliet in his revolving door of modernized, metatextual Shakespearean revamps. Shot on super 16mm, the look and feel of the film is like that of a time capsule home movie, its continual display of modern technology, such as the heavy use of text-message conversations between its secretive lovers, often zoomed into in extreme close-up, feeling like sacrilegious anachronisms in the pronounced visual landscape (included in this is one of Marisol’s stretched out t-shirts featuring Britney Spears, a representation of a foreign, far-off world she perhaps yearns to be part of).
Naranjo reunites with two members of his Miss Bala cast, the villainous Noe Hernandez and the handsome but sinister Eduardo Mendizabal, the former reshaped as a manipulative lover and the latter an incest-prone, overpowering and oft-violent cousin of their shared love object. Alejandra Herrera, who played a minor role in Cuaron’s Roma (2018), gets a chance to shine as the androgynous lead attempting to exact agency through her connection with Mundo, their sexual connection on crackling, lascivious display.
The frequent nudity of Herrera and Hernandez is often startling but never exploitative (of note considering Hernandez could be considered the Mexican Harvey Keitel). We’re used to seeing Noe Hernandez as a grizzled character actor, but here he exudes an almost boyish charm as Mundo in a role which plays like the opposite of his carnal demon in 2016’s We Are the Flesh. From unsimulated sex to dragging bodies behind trucks, to a bloody machete fight, Kokoloko perhaps best justifies its nonsensical, sing-songy title in its final throes—even in a topsy-turvy world on a wire, life goes on.
This was a 2020 Tribeca Film Festival International Narrative Competition selection – reviewed via the press and industry Tribeca Film Festival Industry Extranet Resource Hub.