What you need to know
The 2019 Taiwan International Queer Film Festival runs from 8/15 to 8/25 in Taipei and from 8/28 to 9/8 in Kaohsiung. This film review is based on a complimentary media screening.
The first hint we get that Gabriel’s (Gaston Re) infatuation with Juan (Alfonso Barón) may not be in vain is when Juan asks Gabriel if he’s seeing someone. Gabriel answers “sort of” and Juan follows up with, “What’s their name?” It’s an oblique yet clear signal in a film constructed out of suggestions and implications.
Written, directed, and edited by Argentine Marco Berger, The Blond One (Un Rubio 2019) spent most of its 108 minutes on furtive glances and smoldering stares, lustful envy and tension-filled rooms, and the anguished push and pull between the two men in their late twenties or early thirties.
The blond and relatively pale-faced Gabriel (an angelic name) rents a room from furniture factory coworker Juan, who like his namesake Don Juan has a voracious sexual appetite. In a film with a spare soundtrack (by Pedro Irusta), the techno music coming from somewhere in the apartment incites our and Gabriel’s curiosity; turns out it’s coming from Juan’s room, from which a naked woman (Julieta Tramanzoli) emerges, followed by an equally naked Juan. That music, the credits inform us, is called “Tecno Sex,” and indeed we hear it every time Juan has a lady over.
Having a techno-loving womanizer as a flatmate would be bad enough, but what makes it worse is that Gabriel has an obvious crush on him. He sneaks glances whenever they’re together in the living room, usually with some of Juan’s guy friends, and is pleasantly uncomfortable when Juan, reaching over, puts a hand very high up Gabriel’s thigh for support. Is it innocent? or very subtle flirting?
Make no mistake, the flirting is subtle as both men are deeply closeted. Gabriel is more than handsome: He’s endearing, with a taciturn personality and a daughter in the second grade, Ornella (Malena Irusta), who lives with her grandparents outside the big city where Gabriel visits twice a week. He’s the only one of these working-class people who opens a book, Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man (1951), a collection of sci-fi stories that suggests his restlessness at the routine life he leads. He even has a girlfriend, Julia (Ailín Salas), but they lack any chemistry whatsoever.
As for Juan, you can’t help pitying him when his friends casually talk about fearing that the lady they pick up at the bar is a “transvestite,” or how gay sons are caused by weak fathers, or how they would cut off their balls if their daughter came out as a lesbian. He understandably wants to lead a “normal” life with his girlfriend, Natalia (Melissa Falter), and maintain his popularity among his buddies, who always seem to come to his place rather than vice versa. When Gabriel, the shy one, sparks their first encounter by touching Juan’s crotch, Juan won’t even look at him.
But soon enough, being together all day at work and at home leads to a passionate relationship, intimately depicted. There are sex scenes, and a no-big-deal naturalistic treatment of frontal nudity, and yet the most intimate moments are when a friend sleeps on the couch and Juan kisses Gabriel chastely on the cheek in the doorway, then pulls him into the shadows to kiss him on the lips; or when the two share a pair of earphones and Juan puts an arm behind Gabriel, flustering him; or especially when, amid the post-coital glow, Gabriel shares some deeply personal information and Juan leans over to comfort him with kisses.
That last scene is one of the few in which the camera moves, following Juan’s body to highlight how each kiss conveys emotional support and solace, breaking through Gabriel’s introverted isolation like a Berlin airlift penetrating the Soviet blockade.
Though the camera seldom moves, it frequently shifts focus, so that cinematographer Nahuel Berger can emphasize the perspective of different people (and body parts) in a single scene. It’s a neat trick that feels less pervy than the usual insert shots or close-ups. In fact, most of the film, including the sex scenes, uses a mid-length head-and-shoulders shot, rendering the viewer a neutral observer of developing events. This has the added benefit of keeping those furtive glances and grabs, well, furtive.
We’ve established that the womanizer and the introvert are a match made in gay heaven. The question is: Do they have a future together?
The ending may strike some as predictable or precious, and truth be told the script doesn’t break much narrative ground, but the two leads have such screen presence that we find ourselves engrossed. Gaston Re, in particular, is adept at expressing an entire mental state with a few small movements. The pacing is a bit slow, but when I thought about what scenes could be tightened up or skipped altogether, nothing fits the bill.
The 2019 Taiwan International Queer Film Festival is running from August 15 to August 25 in Taipei and from August 28 to September 8 in Kaohsiung.
TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)
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