Dwarves, Guns and Breasts

Of all the problems Mexico has endured—crushing poverty, political corruption, narcotics trafficking, "Cabo Wabo"—the decline of its film industry is arguably the most humiliating. Once among the world's best, Mexico's film industry has suffered from a 30-year plague of dwarves, 60-year-old gunslingers, and gayer-than-gay gay guys. In the past decade, preposterous flicks that would not die—not even at the box office—included the number "XIV" in their titles.

Four films at UC Irvine's Festival of Contemporary Mexican Cinema—De la Calle, Un Mundo Raro, De Ida y Vuelta and Escrito en el Cuerpo de la Noche—point to better times ahead. Each deftly tackles themes familiar to la Época de Oro (Mexico's Golden Age of Cinema, from around 1935 to 1959): poverty; the chasm between el rancho and the city; and the complex legacy of the mestizaje, the mixing of Spanish and Indian blood.

More important, the festival offerings emerged from a Mexican New Wave that is slowly reinvigorating a film industry that first went to mierda in the early 1960s. That's when the Mexican government cut film subsidies—a budget move that opened the sluice gates on such campy, cost-efficient genres as the wrestling film (where always-masked luchadores did everything from fight zombies to stop immigrant-smuggling rings) and horror films featuring assorted Aztec monsters. Yet even the sight of portly wrestlers kicking Mayan-mummy ass was better than the convoluted genres that followed: sex (sexycomedia) and ultraviolence (narcopelícula).

The latter featured characters—either singers such as the many played by Vicente Fernández or female truckers in films like Lola la Trailera (Lola the Truck Driver)—that always carried automatic machine guns to mow down scores of people. The thin plots generally centered on revenge, drugs or the interruption of weddings, and each was littered with bloody battles carried out in every conceivable setting. Say something inappropriate? Look at someone the wrong way? Marry into the wrong family? Blam! Blam! Blam! You're dead.

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Un Mundo Raro (A Bizarre World)

Mexican films from the '70s through early '90s that were devoid of firearms usually packed different weapons: breasts. The sexycomedia was an excuse to situate bikini-clad women around superflaming guys on beaches or near swimming pools. Featuring "plots" of loosely related vignettes that required women to jump or run, it was always guaranteed in sexycomediasthat either a dwarf or a superugly guy would appear and start chasing women around. With such titles as Bill Gritón y Monica del Whiskey, the films from this genre were usually parts of interminable series.

Narcopelículasand sexycomediashad two things in common: horrific quality and immense popularity. Go to your local Spanish video store, and you'll still see cover after cover, row upon row, from floor to ceiling, films featuring big guns, big jugs or both. The genres were so popular that they nearly killed Mexican independent cinema.

But starting with Like Water for Chocolate (1992) and continuing through to more recent films like those being screened at UCI, diligent Mexican filmmakers have honed their craft and are finally getting serious worldwide recognition. Each film showing in Irvine over the next two weekends has won awards at festivals around the globe.

De la Calle (Streeters) combines the themes of Los Olvidados and The 400 Blows, concentrating on 15-year-old Rufino (Luis Fernando Peña) as he tries to survive and find himself in the too-bad-to-be-real-but-they-are slums of Mexico City. De Ida y Vuelta (Back and Forth), meanwhile, eschews city life for the Mexican countryside and its inhabitants. It is a powerful commentary on Mexico's biggest problem: what the emigration of countless Mexicans to los Estados Unidos has done to both the immigrants and the ranchosthey left behind.

The laughs at the festival are provided by Un Mundo Raro (A Bizarre World). It's similar in its plot and dark humor to Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy. But the scathing condemnation of media-mad Mexico is based on the real-life story of an aspiring standup comedian (played by Emilio Guerrero) who went to criminal means to get on television.

Escrito en el Cuerpo de la Noche (Written on the Body of Night) is the final—and most auteurist—film screening at UCI. A cross between Cinema Paradiso and every film ever dealing with young, aspiring filmmakers, director Jaime Humberto Hermosillo's nostalgic Escritohonors love and moviemaking through the eyes of a young filmmaker inspired cinematically and sexually by a beautiful teenager.

With films such as these, the unraveling of Mexico's ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional and more political freedoms being reestablished, the day may soon come when skirt-chasing dwarves are forever banished from Mexican cinema.

Festival of Contemporary Mexican Cinema at the UCI Film And Video Center, 100 Humanities Instructional Building, Campus and W. Peltason drs., Irvine, (949) 824-7418. All screenings at 7 p.m. De la Calle, Sat.; De Ida y Vuelta, Sun.; Un Mundo Raro, Sept. 15; Escrito en el Cuerpo de la Noche, Sept. 16. $5 ($3 for students).

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