It is often said that cinema is there to guide us, to help us contend with an increasingly inscrutable and mysterious world in both its material and ineffable aspects. But what of cinema’s uncanny ability to make strange, to lead us astray into unknown territory, to advocate for being lost, vulnerable and resoundingly human? Enter Wong Kar-wai’s instant cult classic-cum-pop anthem Chungking Express (1994), which captured the brazen incandescence of a rebellious filmmaker who struck a nerve (and surged pulses) by way of an immersive cinematic language seeped in seduction and laced with updated nouvelle vague tendencies—with a penchant for pulpy and sultry noir—while inspiring, in equal part, confusion. Its bifurcated tale of Hong Kong love stories involving boys in blue revealed by rapturous cubist construction, a catchy soundtrack, and comely characters, an amorous merry-go-round whose circumference remarkably encircled a seedy, dangerous underground and a fluorescent, family-friendly fast-food counter, dangling unresolved beginnings and endings. Today the film retains its playful and clumsy sexiness, its raw and rough-around-the edges appeal, its lusty lyricism, unabashed charm, and its elastic disequilibrium. Shot on 35mm and exposed at experimental frame rates, Chungking Express has a ghostly, staccato rhythm: a whirlwind metropolis pace filtered through hot, feverish colors and running at an attenuated, dreamy pace that conveys youthful yearning and wanton desire for uncertain prospects, embodied in the first half by a silly superstition involving the expiry date on a month’s worth of canned pineapple, and in the second by a boarding pass for destination unknown sketched on a napkin dated a year into the future, which inevitably becomes the present. A heightened awareness of passing time is imprinted on every one of the film’s burnished, stylized images, is central to its enduring ode to cinephilic romance and, ultimately, spurs its longing for fleeting and infectious moments of rapture.
Similarly nervy, quixotic and decidedly desultory is the astonishing, category-defying feature debut by Argentine filmmaker Eduardo Williams, El auge del humano (2016). While Wong’s Happy Together (1997), with its sensuous and claustrophobic Argentine setting and its focus on male bodies and successive bouts of severance and reconciliation could seem a more apt reference point for Williams, Chungking Express perhaps best matches the fresh radicality and timeliness that buoys his film, and echoes its curiosity—both laconic and active—about the world we inhabit, conveyed with compulsive rhythms, ubiquitous precarity and conspicuous contradictions. Not unlike Chungking, El Auge del humano begins abruptly and plunges us into its world, opening in disorienting mid-action and murky darkness, out of which we follow a young suburban protagonist who loses his mundane job and gets crafty with his money-making. Thereafter, the film’s grainy textures and extraordinarily deft hand-held camera depart on a multi-country voyage blending naturalism with oblique fantasy, evoking ethno-fiction as it delves deep into our contemporary moment, meanderingly tracking a physical and geographic network that is both in concert with and in contrast to our keyed-up digital economy.
Structured in three parts (with inventive relays between each section, one involving sexcams and another an equally mesmerizing anthole), El auge del humano thrusts us into the lives of young men (mostly) in disparate parts of the world, who are bored by their jobs and seeking fulfillment elsewhere. Underlining both the commonality and diversity of these characters' experiences, Williams hints at profound political and philosophical enquiries while remaining in a fluid mode of observation, finding mutual relation and open adventure. The intimate spaces of everyday life open onto some of the greatest paradoxes of contemporary existence as Williams creates a multi-faceted meditation on what we do to make money; how we spend our time; how we measure progress, success and leisure; and how ultimately nothing is static in this world of wild weather patterns, internet connectivity, and globalized trade, travel, and exchange. As the quotidian consistently melds with the strange, El auge del humano reveals how uncertainty can yield its own sources of beauty and forms of small-scale resistance by charting the rhythms of autonomy over automatism.
Traversing the globe with his peripatetic camera(s)—the film was shot on 16mm in Buenos Aires; with a Blackmagic pocket camera (subsequently reshot in Super 16 from the screen of a computer) in Maputo, Mozambique; and with the RED camera on the Philippine island province of Bohol—Williams has created a work that is both winding and wondrous, its sinewy detours through urban and natural jungles abounding in sensual contours. As its characters chase free wifi, El auge del humano teasingly searches for meaningful happenstance amid the seemingly banal, while doing so committing to its own (at times extemporized) exploration and advocating for cinematic liberation. Propelled by its engagement, free spirit and innate musicality, the film submits to a fascinating form of human express, whose flows of diverse, global exchange have become vital in an increasingly modern-day dystopia. Have we reached the point where being lost urges us to feel so alive? There is an innocent romanticism (and unassuming humanism, empathy and generosity) coursing through the film, one that both reveals and revokes the promise of its grand title. In breezy and laidback fashion, Williams renders a portrait of aimless youth staving off boredom and loneliness through communal escape and shared complicity: An anthem in the making.