The Life Pursuit
Michael Koresky on Julián Hernández’s Raging Sun, Raging Sky

In an already marginalized cinema, Julián Hernández continues to forge an outsider’s path. To most audiences who don’t live within its borders, cinema in Mexico has in the past decade or so boiled down to the output of the self-named “Three Amigos”: Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro González Iñárittu. To more rigorous, festival-following cinephiles, the trio’s accessible, palatable films—united in slickness of craft and ability to maneuver between Latin and North American idioms, often shot in the U.S. and featuring Hollywood actors—are the middlebrow, and artistically no match for the daring of “up-and-coming” auteurs such as Fernando Eimbcke, Pedro Gonazález-Rubio, and Carlos Reygadas. Yet commonly left off of even these admiring lists is Hernández’s name, even though he has proven now, with three features and various shorts, to have one of the most consistent, revelatory cinematic visions anywhere in the world today. Could it be that Hernández isn’t spoken in the same breath as (the far milder) Eimbcke or (the more artistically specious) Reygadas because of the heaps of explicit gay sexual content that not only grace his films but also form their aesthetic backbone? One needn’t answer.

Moving out further than his national cinema, we could assume that Hernández might command the respect of the same viewers who embrace Lisandro Alonso, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, or Tsai Ming-liang—like the work of those directors, his films fall into that oft-trotted out category of “durational,” but they’re also grandly mytho-poetic, with an astonishingly rich tactility that transforms nearly every moment into one of mysterious, dreamlike ecstasy. His oeuvre thus far may very well constitute an artistic high point in narrative-cinema homoeroticism—if that doesn’t sound grand enough a compliment, consider for instance Hernández’s forebears: Genet, Cocteau, Almodóvar, occasionally Fassbinder, etc. In their committed vision, in their using the medium to confront the representation of desire but also to leap wholeheartedly and without guile into that representation, the director’s features—A Thousand Clouds of Peace . . . (2003), Broken Sky (2006), and Raging Sun, Raging Sky (2009)—are landmark. But it’s a landmark many couldn’t care less to commemorate. Contemporary critical cinematic discourse—so energized by the act of parsing and separating a film’s visuals from its “meaning” and structure—risks reducing Hernández to mere “stylist.” Yet the most extraordinary thing about Hernández’s films is that they do not seek to deny pleasure—though obsessed with profound longing, and indeed the frustrated, epic attenuation of that longing, they also act as guileless erotic wish fulfillment. Though there would seem to be precedents for the filmmaker’s approach to filmic desire as well as contemporary aesthetic analogues (the long take seems to be the cornerstone of today’s serious film artists), the strange luxuriousness of his landscapes, both human (gay, male) and geographical (contemporary Mexico City), could not be mistaken for the work of anyone else.

So who is this visionary? Julián Hernández followed the usual educational routes in his pursuit to become a filmmaker, attending the University Center of Film Studies (CUEC) at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Yet the years of his schooling, 1989 to 1994, reveal a telling parallel, as they mirror the length of time that the Mexican state enforced major structural changes in the national film industry. This is roughly when the Mexican Film Institute was formed, a public agency that made possible a cinema renaissance in the country. This development certainly must have aided Hernández and his group of friends from CUEC when they set out to found the film collective Cooperativa Cinematográfica Morelos (other members of the group have included director Roberto Fiesco as well as craftsmen and technicians Aurora Ojeda, Diego Arizmendi, and Alejandro Cantú, who would become one of Hernández’s great cinematographers). The cooperative’s success and longevity—more than 25 films in less than two decades—speaks not only to the talent of those but also of changing attitudes toward art cinema in Mexico; with their consistent structural and narrative experimentation, these films have helped augur in a new era of formal daring as well as reflected a shift in attitudes about the representation of male sexuality on film.

With exaggerated machismo historically the order of the day in Mexican cinema and literature and gay representation relegated mostly to ridiculous minstrel-like side characters, Hernández’s approach has been radical. For not only does he acknowledge gay men’s longing and desire, he makes it explicit by eroticizing both their gaze and ours—statuesque, youthful, darker-skinned bodies moving alluringly through time and space. His films don’t necessarily play with archetypes (à la Argentinean director Marcelo Piñeyro’s Burnt Money, a gay Bonnie and Clyde that ups the ante in virility), but use the camera to map a sensorial and sensuous paradise. His oeuvre creates a remarkably convincing poeticizing of gay desire, and it’s as tied to geography as it often is to his young characters’ inner worlds. His most recent film, also his most dense and epic, Raging Sun, Raging Sky, projects a modern-day love triangle onto a framework of ancient, Aztec ritual. It’s tenuous, yet site-specific, a homoerotic allegory built out of the rocky earth itself.

There’s been an increasing formality and metaphor to Hernández’s features, as evidenced in the jump from the relatively realist A Thousand Clouds of Peace . . . to Broken Sky, which played with abstraction, to Raging Sun, which feels less literally about the three main boys on screen, bouncing off each other like particles in an indifferent cosmos, than about the intensity of a boundless, centuries-old passion. Like his earlier films, Raging Sun is set in the Centro Histórico in Mexico City. Fittingly, it’s a place where past meets present—the crumbling historic downtown is basically correlative with Tenochtitlan, the Aztec city founded in the early fourteenth century. History is everywhere—its central area, Zocalo, remains the largest plaza in all of Latin America, and most of what you see today in the Centro Histórico was rebuilt with the destroyed Tenochtitlan’s rubble. Along with director of photography Cantú, Hernández films this mysterious place as though a city that exists only in memory, like Wim Wenders’ Berlin in Wings of Desire, perched on the precipice between life and death, creation and destruction, and shot in an evocative, grainy black and white.

And also like Wings, Raging Sun features a divine guardian angel of sorts. First seen walking determinedly through a series of circular stone openings in a highway underpass, this vision in a striped dress becomes a dynamic camera subject for the film’s opening half-hour. In one masterfully composed tracking shot after another, she wanders, sings to herself, randomly chases a boy on a bike for a bit; she never says a word but is clearly listening to the world around her, especially the snippets of conversation we overhear from strangers (about money, school, waiting for the bus) during her walk through what is clearly an impoverished section of Mexico City. She seems to feel things enormously, though it’s unclear whether she’s reacting supernaturally to some greater force we’re not privy to or an unspoken memory; she laughs, she weeps. Her journey, its destination unknown to us if there is one, ends when a backpack-wearing boy, who couldn’t be much more than a teenager, approaches her. His face is warm, inviting, gleaming; there continues to be no dialogue, yet an understanding blooms between them. When he sees her crying, she begins to giggle; the connection is forged, and when it starts pouring rain, they run off together. There follows a beautifully arranged, explicit, wordless sex scene between them (the odd heterosexual coupling in a Hernández film), shot at a vertical high angle; every wet piece of clothing is disrobed like the unclasping of armor. Finally, postcoitally she speaks, stroking his skin, “Oh, virtuous Ryo . . . Love will be your guide.” For the first completely audible piece of dialogue in the film, it’s ambiguous and arch, and doesn’t lead us to any great reveal about these two enigmatic people. Furthermore, this is mere prologue, and she will disappear for most of the film’s remaining running time.

Hernández has said, “I make films because I’ve always felt incapable of telling the people who have shared their lives with me how much I’ve loved them.” A lovely sentiment, but also amusing in that his films are almost completely nonverbal. Raging Sun, Raging Sky concerns the intertwining love pursuits of three young men in Mexico City: Ryo (Guillermo Villegas), introduced already; Kieri (Jorge Becerra), beautiful, solitary, and an object of much affection; and Tari (Javier Oliván), a lovesick piece of rougher trade, a boxer whose dogged obsession with, alternately, Ryo and Kieri, paints him as ambiguously villainous. Much of the film’s running time is made up of men following each other, pregnant stares, and erotic longueurs in which these boys wander urinals, movie theaters, and apartment complexes, searching for one another, in some cases perhaps unwittingly. There’s a grand design to everything in Hernández’s films, and that extends from the precision of the long takes and tracking shots to the sense of his characters moving through a world that’s been cosmically predetermined for them. Hernández’s cinema is certainly not one of spontaneity (but neither is it chilly nor predictable), but rather something like a visual approximation of intensely metered poetry.

Raging Sun, Raging Sky is split into three distinct verses, consisting of a prologue and two separate epic visual love songs, the first contemporary the second mythic and ancient, featuring the same principal characters, but for the first time in color. All stanzas are largely dialogue-free, with images moving in musical ebbs and flows—it’s unlikely that anyone has made or ever will again make a men’s room seduction scene as lengthy and sinuous and erotic as the one that opens the film’s second act. After a brief shot of a projectionist, firmly situating us both in a movie dream world and literally in a movie theater frequented by horny young gay men, Hernández orchestrates an intense roundelay of flirtations, intercourse, masturbation, and voyeurism between multiple mute characters, from urinal to stall and back again—graceful camera dexterity transforms this potentially putrid lavatory space into an erotic labyrinth and unites these hungry young men in a luscious continuum of desire. The cruising continues in the shadowy entrance to the theater itself, an overhead chiaroscuro of Kieri avoiding Tari’s attempted seduction on the steps—as stunningly patterned with light as anything from early Sternberg.

The lingering air of sensuality in this film, as in Broken Sky, is so strong that it’s almost as though all the characters have ESP—that they can sense each other’s presence, their skin and bodies, yes, but also their melancholy and loneliness, their intense passions. Hernández here almost seems to view this young community of gay men (more than twenty years his junior) as spiritually connected. In their isolation one could read a rather old-fashioned take on the homosexual doomed to loneliness, but there is no discernible sociopolitical angle to his point of view—this is the stuff of classic romantic legend, of poetry, of lovesickness and pursuit. When Hernández shows us an overhead shot of man in bed curled up, the sheet creases fanning out around his body like rays of light, it’s not a visual aside, it’s an entire stanza from the love song itself.

The film’s last section—which the director announces with the first appearance of the film’s title, at the two-hour-and-thirteen-minute mark; perhaps the entire film has thus far been prologue?—functions in an entirely fantastical realm. It’s the middle of the ancient desert, Ryo has been abducted and taken into a hidden cave by warrior Tari, and Kieri must rescue him; the woman from the beginning of the film has returned as a regal Aztec goddess. Despite all these seeming complications, exposition remains at a minimum. Color intrudes, but subtly, as the trees surrounding the forbidding gray rock and sand that covers both Kieri, as though encrusted scales, and the mountainous precivilization through which he wanders, give off a muted verdant tone. This sudden journey back into a mythical past, the transfiguration of the film’s characters into folkloric symbols, may remind many viewers of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s gambit in Tropical Malady, a more cleanly bifurcated contemporary-primitive love story.

Yet Hernández is seeking something more sensuous; these men are not shirking their skins but inhabiting them even more fully, and their desire is depicted as a primal, ancient force, one that, in this case, even has power to affect the present. Indeed, the richness of Hernández’s filmmaking isn’t quite comparable to that of any other of the formalist darlings of the contemporary art-house scene, from Tsai Ming-liang to Lisandro Alonso or even to Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues, who may also trade in vivid homoeroticism but whose approach is less extravagant and more given to tragic grotesquerie. The romanticism and desperation in Hernández’s films are an aesthetic unto themselves—Mexican cinema has somehow given birth to the bastard child of Cocteau and Ophuls. Now the world needs to take notice.