The much-celebrated Mexican New Wave of cinema has earned considerable praise for probing deep into social, political and economic issues at the heart of the country’s infrastructure, and Diego Quemada-Diez‘s feature debut The Golden Cage (La Juala de oro) aims to add to that dialogue. However, adhering strictly to the singular miserablism of this cinematic movement’s lesser entries, there’s simply the prevailing feeling that everything the film does has been better-executed elsewhere.
The Golden Cage tells the story of three Guatemalan teenagers heading north to the United States for what they hope will be a better life. Juan (Brandon Lopez), Sara (Karen Martinez) and Samuel (Carlos Chajon) set off on their journey, picking up an Indian, Chauk (Rodolfo Dominguez), along the way, who speaks only in Bengali (which remains dutifullly unsubtitled). Attempting to fend off both the immigration police and local gangs while illegally train-hopping their way to the States, the quartet will also have to keep their relationships with one another in check if they are to make it to the promised land.
Aside from the slight amusement caused by Sara disguising herself as a boy in the earlier portions of the film, this is a work that, like so many entries into the Mexican New Wave, is simply too downcast and morose for its own good. That is not to doubt the torrid conditions facing many in Central America, but a sprinkle of even the darkest gallows humor often goes a long way. The film instead seems to go in the other direction; one scene in which the kids chase around a chicken begins as a bit of a giggle, and concludes with one of them slowly breaking its neck. Add to this mirthlessness a painstaking pace and you have a film that’s well-intended enough – prior to the screening, the director said that many people from the region had asked him to tell this story – though slides forgettably into the canon of somber Mexican plight movies.
The most exciting moments come, inevitably, when the kids are on the run from the authorities or the gangs running each area they arrive at. Easily the film’s best scene occurs when a gang offloads a group of captured immigrants of all of their women, at which stage Sara is outed as a girl, resulting in a humiliating expose and assault that will doubtless anger viewers. Another strong scene takes place as one character tries to bargain for his friend’s life, though these tense scenes are pretty much few and far between.
It’s a long trip from Guatemala to Los Angeles, something Quemada-Diez makes abundantly clear through his repetitive approach, with the kids laboriously getting onto another train before, you guessed it, another force throws itself in their way. It’s only at the culmination of act three that viewers are likely to be stung off-guard, as the meandering pace prevents us from anticipating a sudden, shocking act of violence that defines the senseless brutality of situations like this. The very final moments are above all else bittersweet, insisting that even if you make it, it doesn’t mean your American dream is going to come true.
Though nicely shot – some images of the kids sitting atop a train at dusk sticks especially well in the mind – one can’t watch this film without thinking of Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre, a vastly superior feature running along the same bent. However, its actions aren’t as repetitive and its drama not as emotionally distant. What the director has crafted here is charmless misery porn sorely in need of a personality transplant.
The Upside: Performances are solid, and it does produce some potent images.
The Downside: Too miserable for its own sake and wholly repetitive, making the sub-2 hour film feel like a considerably lengthier slog.
On the Side: The vast majority of the cast is played by non-professional and first-time actors.