In Li Cheng’s “José” (Outsider Pictures), recipient of the Queer Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival, the titular character José (Enrique Salanic, making his feature film lead role debut) is a young gay man living with his devoutly religious single mother (Ana Cecilia Mota) in Guatemala City.
Young and, well, horny, José hooks up with guys he meets on a phone app. While not out to his co-workers Monica (Jhakelyn Waleska Gonzalez Gonzalez) and Carlos (Esteban Lopez Ramirez), he regularly has sex with men in a rented room where others are obviously doing the same. Things change for José when he meets Luis (Manolo Herrera), an ambitious, young construction worker from Izabal. They get together more than once for sex and begin the unexpected process of falling in love. They examine each other’s scars and tell the related stories. They hang out together publicly. They send each other texts. They go for motorcycle rides.
As you probably suspected, José’s mother disapproves. When she sees José and Luis take off together on a motorcycle, she begins to pray for him. She confronts Luis’ mother, accusing her son of leading José down the wrong path. It doesn’t help that José is distracted at work, a job given to him by a friend of his mother’s, who was asked to look after him.
José and Luis talk about their feelings for each and about the possibility of being together, something that can be a challenge given the religious and violent society in which they live. Luis wants a better life for them, anywhere but Guatemala, and can provide one with his current employment situation. José is stubborn, perhaps driven by the responsibility he feels for caring for his mother, in spite of the fact that he has sisters who can look after her. Luis leaves, saying that he will have to get used to being without José.
From here on, José’s world slowly begins to unravel. He tries to leave home but is unable to do so. Luis doesn’t return any of his texts. Monica and Carlos break up because she is pregnant. There is an earthquake. He’s unable to maintain an erection when he hooks up with a choreographer (Carlos Humberto Fuentes Maldonado). He gets into a fight at a soccer game. He gets drunk, stumbles home and pukes his guts out. His mother is robbed one evening returning home from work.
However, time spent with his grandmother (Alba Irene Lemus) in the countryside has a restorative effect. While there, he learns of his grandmother’s history of man troubles, something she has in common with José’s mother, and possibly, José himself. On the way back home, he makes a last-ditch effort to try and track down Luis without luck, before paying a visit to some Mayan ruins. The movie’s open-ended conclusion is as hopeful as it is mysterious, but if we’ve learned anything about José, it is that he is a survivor. In Spanish with English subtitles.