I’m No Longer Here
The musical genre known as cumbia emerged along the Caribbean coast of Colombia during the time of the slave trade and made inroads into Central and South America in the ensuing centuries, though it apparently exploded in the 1960s. Today, it’s called by some the mother of all Latin music, and its form can vary highly from culture to culture. It’s accompanied by a shuffling, circular dance that incorporates short, close two-steps and hand gestures and gradually accelerating, graceful spins. Some historians suggest that the narrow steps are due to the shackles that would have been on the enslaved dancers’ legs, limiting their motion. Maybe that’s one reason why the music and its movements often feel so haunted, hovering between joy and melancholy.
In I’m No Longer Here, cumbia helps to hold a small community together even as it expresses an indescribable longing. The film follows Ulises (Juan Daniel García), a seventeen-year-old “Cholombiano” from the working-class outskirts of Monterrey, Mexico, as he flees to the U.S. and tries to make a life for himself in New York. In Monterrey, Ulises was a reasonably known figure, being the leader of a small gang/dance crew known as Los Terkos. They had elaborately gelled hairstyles, wore vibrant, baggy clothes, and would await away the hours hanging and dancing and occasionally causing chaos. In New York, Ulises has no friends and speaks no English. He briefly lives with a group of day laborers who find his manner deeply off-putting. He’s also befriended by the sixteen-year-old granddaughter (Angelina Chen) of a Queens bodega owner, who’s fascinated by his style and his music but who herself speaks no Spanish. The film moves along the two timelines, as the lonely, penniless boy makes his way through the city while flashing back to his life in Mexico and the grisly circumstances that led to him having to leave.
And that might sound like a recipe for a boilerplate social-issue drama and/or a predictably sensitive indie romance, but director Fernando Frías de la Parra has made a more pensive, mournful film. He lets the story play out deliberately and soberly. In the vein of a Yasujirō Ozu film, the frame is often static, the compositions careful but unfussy. One mesmerizing pan shows the glowing, dreamy cityscape of Monterrey at night, then gently turns toward the hilly, destitute periphery where Ulises lives, where the lights are scattered and the terrain uneven. Throughout de la Parra proves himself a gifted visual storyteller, but he’s also not one to handhold us through a narrative. Elements of costuming or background are often all we have to locate ourselves in the film’s somewhat intricate flashback structure; also making the narrative both drag, but also demand your attention, and it merits your attention; I’m sure it looks wonderful (sigh) on a big screen. The cumbia music Ulises listens to speaks of homesickness, of distant memories and long-lost places, and passing, unlikely moments of beauty. Sometimes the boy will slow down the music because that way, he says, “it lasts longer.” That way, of course, it’s also sadder. And the music fades: In Ulises’ mind, the images of home drift further and further away, and the songs get softer and softer. Almost as if, in his moment of greatest solitude and longing, the young man finally understands the vital power of the music he’s been listening to his whole life, and how quickly it can all vanish. The narrative might sag every once and again in I’m No Longer Here, but for the most part it steadily remains a lovely tale of music, migration, and loss.
I’m No Longer Here is available to stream on Netflix
Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child is kind of a zombie movie. Except the undead here are of the voodoo variety, almost in the vein of the ones in the Jacques Tourneur film I Walked With a Zombie. Bonello’s ambitious, chronologically complicated plot divides its attentions between two settings: 1960s Haiti, where a man (Mackenson Bijou) dies and is resurrected into moaning-and-shuffling slave on a sugar plantation; and present-day Paris, where a Haitian teenager, Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), begins attending an all-girls private school, and is ushered into a close-knit sorority. There are elements of coming-of-age drama, tortured romance, and supernatural horror, though part of the film’s strange power is that is never seems to commit to any of those genres, hovering on some border instead, teasing the audience with the various possibilities of where it might go.
Zombi Child played at Cannes last year, but not in competition. And that’s not the first time that Bonello has failed to make the Cannes cut: The festival is heavily rumored to have outright rejected his last movie, the solid Nocturama, for reasons having more to do with provocative subject matter (the film unfolded from the perspective of teenage terrorists in Paris) than artistic merit. But in the case of Zombi Child, it’s tougher to say. Certainly, this is a movie that may prompt charges of cultural appropriation. But it’s also a film about cultural appropriation, one that pivots to the blinkered perspective of Mélissa’s white, lovesick classmate (Louise Labeque), only to cleverly, productively subvert that choice later. Or maybe the Cannes programmers didn’t accept it fully because they just didn’t love the film. And, in some part, I kind of get it; as the film is a little hard to fully make out. Bonello teases a lot of dramatic and cultural conflicts — “first world problems,” unconscious biases and white privilege, the ghosts of historical trauma — and basically lets them simmer and simmer, until a climax that’s more exposition than developed resolution. Does that strange brew entirely coalesce? Not fully, and while its ambitious juggling act can feel strained, it’s Zombi Child‘s seductive craftsmanship and interrogation of the bitter legacy of French colonialism that keeps it compelling.
Zombi Child is available to stream on the Criterion Channel