*MILD SPOILERS FOLLOW*
Brokeback Mountain (2005) meets Ghost (1990)…? While Javier Fuentes-León’s Undertow is prone to such shorthand (and even gently mocking) descriptions, in fact it’s a wonderfully accomplished love story that flirts with despair as often as it does with cuteness.
The story centers on Miguel (Cristian Mercado), a Peruvian worker from a tiny fishing village. About to become a father, he is seen in the very first scene affectionately kissing his wife’s pregnant belly. A couple of scenes later, an equal – if not greater – affection is showered by Miguel on his male lover, Santiago (Manolo Cardona), and the film’s seemingly commonplace dramatic conflict is set in motion.
The kicker comes some 20 minutes in: after Santiago is killed in a swimming accident, his (very carnal and sexually quite active) ghost keeps paying visits to Miguel and will continue until his body is not found and properly buried in the sea. What follows could turn into a savage satirical farce, and yet Fuentes-León resists the temptation, opting for a gentle (almost fey) sense of humor and a genuine heartbreak of a relationship made impossible less by death than by social convention.
There’s a remarkable moment mid-way through the movie: anxious Miguel is persuaded by the ghost of Santiago to walk hand in hand down a village street. Miguel – gay, yet homophobic to the point of self-denial – never even admitted his identity to himself, much less flaunted it in front of other people. And yet, in an instance, he gives his hand to Santiago and the two stroll together, in perfect bliss made possible only because of the ghost’s invisibility to everyone but Miguel. It’s a lovely movie-Utopia of a scene, made poignant and painful by the fact that it fulfils itself solely on a fantasy level.
The movie has its shortcomings: the economic conditions of Miguel’s life seem fake, all sex is prettified, and the movie pussyfoots around the question of Miguel’s lack of sexual feeling for his wife (the movie suggests he’s gay, not bisexual – and yet it doesn’t confront the question of unsatisfying straight sex Miguel is forced to be having; it merely shrugs it off by suggesting that he “thinks of Santiago” each time).
Still, Undertow is a beautifully executed, socially relevant and emotionally compelling gay fable, in which love defies death, but society defies the individual, in turn.