There’s a hint of early Jim Jarmusch in I’m No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui originally), a spicy Mexican drama with an offbeat attitude and a strong sense of place.
Early Jarmusch often featured distinctive characters floating around in a world outside their control. Stuff happens, but very little of it is at their instigation. They react to events rather than act upon them.
So it is with Ulises (Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño), a creature of the barrio in Monterrey, a big fish in a small pond, a member of a loose cadet wing of a gang – everyone’s in one – who is marked out by his remarkable hairstyle, as if a pineapple top had taken root on his head, as well as the insanely baggy clothes that are the hallmark of being a member of this gang of “terkos” – they’re “stubborn”, a useful bit of introductory on-screen explanation tells us.
One day these kids might grow up to be proper gangsters but for the moment they’re just a loose ragtag who hang out together, listen to the same music. As with the clothes so with the music – they favour a slowed-down version of cumbia, to which they dance with moves that are a slo-mo cumbia-breakdance-capoeira melange. It’s their thing and Ulises not only has the best hair, he also has the best moves. He amounts to something.
Director Fernando Frias cuts up the chronology to juxtapose what Ulises had with what he’s lost. One minute we’re with him in the barrio, the next in New York where he’s fled after being in the wrong place at the wrong time back home.
Ulises, shorn of his gang but retaining his hair, finds the big city a struggle. He’s resourceful enough to be able to make it eventually, perhaps, though a touch too sullen to bridge the gaps opened up by his total lack of English. Google Translate and dictionaries only go so far. The faint outline of a possible future beckons, some of it in the shape of 16-year-old American Chinese girl Lin (Xueming Angelina Chen). Ulises also has skills – dancing, hairdressing – you can see how he might gain a toehold.
For the moment, though, he’s dangling. New York is not the New York of picture postcards. Frias does not show us distinctive landmarks that would help us or Ulises to orient ourselves. This is the big city of high buildings, crowds and rush. The barrio, immeasurably poorer, is presented as warm, colourful and intimate. Safe, as long as you’re not caught up in somebody else’s crossfire.
Back home Ulises is a face with a place, here he’s just another punk with funny hair. “Did you think you’d be invited to the White House on your first day?” is how a pitying barfly/escort puts it to him when he finally finds someone to unload onto.
I’m No Longer Here did well on the fragmented festival circuit in 2020 (Netflix picked it up) and is packed with non-actors of a loosey-goosey fluidity and naturalness. It’s another point of contact with Jarmusch, as is its apparent effortlessness and almost lazy progress across the screen, the sort of result born from hard work and planning but letting chance take a hand too.
Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño is a mercurial presence – as the tough yet effete, dangerous yet vulnerable, go-getting yet easily discouraged Ulises he does great things with a potentially impossible role. So closed off yet so open to interpretation. The angular bone structure of the Native Mejicano tells the same story – these downtrodden people were once proud Aztecs.
A snapshot of a life. Two snapshots in fact. One here in New York – where Ulises cannot establish himself, the other the place where he is no longer, a locale that shaped him and which he in turn shaped, to some small degree. Paradise lost.
© Steve Morrissey 2021