Undertow (US - BD)
New reviewer Jonathan is surprised by this unusual ghost story from Peru..
Miguel (Christian Mercado) is a fisherman in a tiny Peruvian seaside village. His beloved wife Mariela (Tatiana Astengo) is far into her pregnancy with their firstborn child. Churchgoers, they are well accepted by their neighbours and friends. All seems well in this peaceful community, but Miguel has a secret. He is in love with Santiago (Manolo Cardona), a painter who is socially rejected by most of the villagers for his homosexuality. As the birth of his child rapidly approaches, unusual circumstances push Miguel into an emotional predicament where he must learn to be true to himself and discover what it really means to be a man.
Despite the increasing social and political relevance, the plight of a secretly gay man is not a new story for Hollywood or independent filmmakers. I went into this art house film knowing very little about it, except that it was Peru's official submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. I wrongfully presumed that I would find it boring and unoriginal. To my surprise, the film actually takes a somewhat refreshing approach to the subject matter with an interesting plot development. Rather than take a head on angle at the inner turmoil of Miguel, this turns into an unusual ghost story with the untimely death of Santiago early in the film. After a swimming accident, Santiago's spirit haunts Miguel, telling him that he cannot be at peace until Miguel reveals their secret relationship to the townspeople.
At first, this change in the narrative was difficult to swallow. This is the sort of contrived material that could easily spiral into melodrama or become hazardously cheesy, but somehow it doesn't. First time feature director Fuentes-León plays it smart and never tries to provide a flimsy explanation for the phenomenon. Instead, he uses it as a device to explore Miguel's fearfulness and guilty conscience. While both movies are completely different in style and storytelling, I was reminded of Pedro Almodóvar's ghost story, Volver. Both films approach the otherworldly material candidly and do not try to sensationalize their spirits with imprudent special effects. The film also benefits from a lack of political agenda. Rather than weigh in on controversial topics, the storytelling sticks with the characters and the central dilemma.
The main reason this film works as well as it does is because of the cast. The relationship between Miguel and Santiago feels believable early on in the film. Christian Mercado gives plenty of nuances to Miguel. I noticed subtle differences in his behaviour and physical mannerisms when he is with Santiago instead of his wife. Manolo Cardona, who is well known in Columbia, shows plausible emotional vulnerability. He convincingly evokes the presence of a sad spirit longing to be at rest. Tatiana Astengo's performance brings a warmth and sweetness to the wife, Mariela. I genuinely did not want to see her get hurt by Miguel's secret. Together, the cast helps to reinforce that this is not a story with a clear antagonist, just good people who are trapped in a complicated situation. The film is competently shot. The photography is modest throughout, but appealing to look at. There are some particularly gorgeous shots of the beach that stood out where the wind is lightly carrying the sand just above the ground.
I was generally pleased with the film, but there were some things that bothered me. A lot of the symbolism was a bit obvious for my taste, and some of the dialogue in the more dramatic scenes borders on hackneyed. Personally, I would've liked to see a bit more light-hearted humour in the second half to help balance out the continuous drama. The supporting cast isn't very strong, but given budget constraints and the fact that many of them are probably starring in a film for the first time, I can't hold it against them or the filmmaker. Around the two-thirds mark I found myself unengaged by some of the storytelling. These complaints are all pretty minor in the grand scheme of things though. Most of the content in Undertow works because of the strong cast and the clever handling of the story.
The image quality is fairly poor, but that is mostly due to the source. Shot in 16 mm, this modest 1080p Blu-ray transfer isn’t destined to stretch the limits of the format. Overall detail is low. Colours appear natural and skin tones are intact. A heavy but soft grain is consistently present, and is particularly noticeable against dark skies and the distant ocean. The noise is present during close-ups and indoor scenes, but is much less intrusive. I noticed what appeared to be some minor image wobble in a couple of scenes, but this could very well be from the camera mechanism used and not a flaw of the transfer. Underwater footage is plagued by harsh banding. None of the major artefacts are a consistent issue and this transfer looks as good as you can reasonably expect given the source. One flaw that I must mention is the burned on English subtitles (a personal peeve of mine). Technically, there are no subtitle tracks on the disc; only the ones permanently embedded in the image.
Curiously, the back of the box lists Dolby 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 as the available audio tracks. This doesn't appear to be accurate. Both my player and a computer program I use identified the Spanish audio settings as DTS-HD Master Audio for both the 5.1 and 2.0 tracks. With the film's low budget in mind, I found that the audio tracks served the film just fine. The sound of waves hitting the shore is almost constantly audible in the side and rear channels throughout the film. This includes scenes that take place inside. Voices are clear and distinguishable even when the roaring ocean is just feet away. There is scarcely any direction to the sound in this drama. The only specific instance I can recall is when the soundtrack cuts out from each side separately as a character removes their ear buds. The haunting instrumental pieces used in the film sound rich without feeling ramped up.
Aside from the theatrical trailer and a GLAAD PSA, we have some interviews with the director and a couple of cast members, a small behind the scenes look, and some deleted scenes. With the exception of Undertow: A Look Inside, the special features are in Spanish with English subtitles. The director speaks in English for his interview and no subtitle options are available.
Undertow: A Look Inside (17:48 HD): Listening to the director talk about the origin of the story is interesting. I was surprised to find out that in its first form, this story was about a man who had a secret relationship with a female prostitute. Fuentes-León talks openly about the casting process and what he thinks of the characters in his film. His personal thoughts on certain scenes gave me a new perspective on them and helped me to appreciate them more. Fans of the film should be pleased with this concise and intriguing feature.
Interview with Christian Mercado (5:26 SD): This is a short Q&A with the actor who plays Miguel in the film. He talks about what he saw in the script that attracted him to the project and gives his thoughts on the films reception.
Interview with Tatiana Astengo (5:32 SD): Another short interview with the actress who plays Miguel's loving wife. She talks briefly about what she saw in the characters and the thought process that she used to involve herself in the role.
Behind the Scenes Featurette (11:07 SD): This covers a lot of the same information as the director interview did. Some casting decisions are covered, as well as the shooting location processes for a few scenes. Despite the film being a heavy drama, it's evident that they had a lot of fun on set.
Deleted Scenes (23:18 SD): Nearly all of these are just extensions of scenes that are still in the film. The ones that are removed entirely feel redundant, so its not difficult to see why they were taken out.
The initial premise of Undertow is hardly original, but director Javier Fuentes-León's deft handling of the subject matter and the unusual ghost story approach make for a worthy viewing experience. The Blu-ray picture won't blow you away, but most of the problems come from the source and not the digital transfer. The audio track is adept, and there are a decent amount of extras to sate those looking for more insight into the story's origin.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 1st June 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Spanish, DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Spanish
Subtitles: English (Hardsubbed)
Extras: Undertow: A Look Inside, Interview with Christian Mercado, Interview with Tatiana Astengo, Behind the Scenes Featurette, Deleted Scenes, Theatrical Trailer, GLAAD PSA
Easter Egg: No
Director: Javier Fuentes-León
Cast: Tatiana Astengo, Manolo Cardona, José Chacaltana, Cindy Díaz, Cristian Mercado
Length: 100 minutes