The Guardian, Sunday 29 June 2014
Spanish-born, Mexico-based film-maker Diego Quemada-Díez cut his teeth working on Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom and the British director’s influence is much in evidence in this powerful, truthful and often harrowing account of young people making the perilous trek from Guatemala to the US. We open with arresting images of teenagers fending for themselves on the streets of Guatemala City: feisty Juan striding through back streets, money sewn into his trousers; Sara cropping her hair and binding her breasts in a public toilet, hoping to hide her gender; Samuel scavenging for scraps on a vast rubbish heap, an emblematic snapshot of a derelict home life. Abandoned by adults, the trio embark upon a journey fraught with life-threatening danger, from jumping trains to being kidnapped, robbed and beaten by thugs and authorities alike. En route, they fall in with the Tzotzil Indian Chauk, who speaks no Spanish but is better able to understand their situation than most, his young eyes blending innocence with knowledge beyond his years. The terrifying tribulations the ramshackle group encounter are culled from the recollections of hundreds of migrants – a microcosm of a far wider human tragedy, made all the more alarming by its apparent mundanity. Yet it’s the warmth and compassion of the storytelling that really strikes home. Quemada-Díez meets his young charges on equal terms, viewing the world through their eyes, seeing its strange wonder even as they gaze unflinchingly at an unforgiving future. The result is at once urgent, defiant, and heartbreaking.
The Guardian, Thursday 26 June 2014
The original title of this movie – originally shown at Cannes last year – is La Jaula de Oro, that is The Golden (or Gilded) Cage, and it is based on a Mexican ballad of that name, all about the horrible imprisoning irony of being an illegal in the US. Uncle Sam likes the cheap labour, but may never grant you the documentation that will allow you to rise above the untouchable servant caste. One cage is exchanged for another. The director, Diego Quemada-Díez, was a camera assistant on the Ken Loach films Carla’s Song, Land and Freedom and Bread and Roses, and there is something very Loachian in this drama about three Guatemalan kids travelling up through Mexico and trying illegally to cross the border into the US.
It is comparable to Cary Fukunaga’s 2009 film Sin Nombre. Three kids with dollar bills sewn secretly into their jeans plan on hopping boxcars and riding the rails right up the American border, and they must earn their passage into California by volunteering as drug mules for heroin gangs. At every stage they face terrible danger from people for whom their young lives are worth less than zero. One of the kids is a girl prudently disguised as a boy with short hair, and an engaging kind of Jules-et-Jim dynamic evolves between them, although romance is hardly the point. It’s a tough, absorbing and suspenseful drama, excellently acted by its three non-professional leads.
26 Jun 2014
The golden dream in The Golden Dream, a Mexican immigration drama of lacerating power and honesty, is America. If this seems like laying on the irony a little thick, given that the film depicts the perils of attempting an illegal crossing as well as the uphill struggle to build a life on the other side, you might prefer the Spanish title, La jaula de oro (The Golden Cage), based on a 1983 folk ballad with the same subject.
We start with the preparations of three Guatemalan teenagers to travel across the border, packing up their belongings, and leaving a shantytown positioned so close to a rubbish tip that it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins. One is a girl, Sara (Karen Martínez), who cuts her hair, pops a pill, and tapes up her breasts to pose as a boy, saying goodbye to her old reflection in an outhouse mirror. Her trek by boxcar will be a lot less fraught without the daily threat of sexual harassment, or worse – and this is a world in which the very worst could all too easily occur.
The two others are boys, a vulnerable rebel called Juan (Brandon López) and the short-lived Samuel (Carlos Chajon), who has second thoughts about their plan when the Mexican immigration police catch them, tauntingly make off with their shoes, and deport them back to Guatemala. In the meantime, they have met Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez), an indigenous Tzotzil boy who can’t speak Spanish, but strikes up a friendship with Sara, inflicting a brooding insecurity on Juan’s pint-sized machismo.
This is the debut film from Diego Quemada-Díez, who learned his trade as a camera assistant on 21 Grams (2003), The Constant Gardener (2005), and numerous films for Ken Loach, including Bread and Roses, his 2000 drama about Latin union politics in Los Angeles. It has that Loachian pedigree of unflinching compassion for other people’s hard experience, but that’s not all it has. Quemada-Díez thinks in images, and his film is too offhandedly credible in its details to feel like a thesis he’s trying to prove: it’s poetry, not prose.
He makes great use of animals: the stray dogs at home that turn with their ears pricked up, wondering where these kids can possibly be headed; or the chicken Juan catches but can’t face killing, while Chauk knows exactly what to do. When the children pose against amusement-arcade tableaux of mythic Americana – selfies with the statue of Liberty, Juan as Shane on a horse – the sequence has a Wes Anderson-ish poignant playfulness that cuts quite deep.
The performances are tremendous. The departure of Samuel, a shrugging and laconic tag-along making the decision of his life, is somehow a huge emotional moment where you least expect it. And it’s not the last farewell between these friends, or anything like the harshest. The sense of loss, the scams, greed and faithlessness thwarting their every step, and the terrible lack of closure on one key character’s fate, coalesce into a beautiful desolation.