With Venezuela in the midst of economic and social meltdown, “El Peor Hombre de Mundo (The Worst Man in the World)” might seem about as far removed from the average Caraquenian experience as imaginable. Released at the end of 2016, this corny comedy depicts the travails of a serial philanderer on a trail of redemption. Bars, swank penthouse parties and chummy workouts in tranquil parks serve as backdrops to flashbacks punctuating that introspection.
It's a depiction of Caracas that seems scarcely credible and one that might seem inappropriate given the facts on the ground: murder and, now, near mayhem. Certainly some local critics were far from impressed with what they saw. “A neutral Caracas,” sneers one.
“A nice Caracas, a Caracas without a shortage, a Caracas without queues, a Caracas without hyperinflation, a Caracas without insecurity, a Caracas middle class, a Caracas with a certain nightlife, a Caracas where you can grab taxis and eat at the same time.”
Indeed. So, how does one reconcile these scenes of upper middle class languor with the reality of a city that has become synonymous with danger and, more broadly, with the images of starving hordes spilling over the borders with Colombia and Brazil that have become a dismaying mainstay of reports from the region?
“It's a disaster there now,” admits Ignacio “Nachito” Huang (黃勝煌), who shines as Kevin “El Chino,” the comic foil, to Alexander Da Silva's compulsive lothario Juan Andrés. “Everything is totally collapsing.”
The Taiwan-born Argentine actor describes surreal shopping experiences in Caracas' threadbare supermarkets.
“In the section with all of the cleaning stuff, where there should be soap, shampoo, toilet paper and the things you find in a normal supermarket, there was only one brand of toothpaste filling three or four shelves,” he says. “The packaging was this heavy Barbie pink. It was just a pink wall.”
Things hadn't yet sunk to the desperate lows that we're now seeing. “People could eat,” says Huang. “There was rice and fruit.” But meat was scarce and on the rare occasions when milk showed up, long queues quickly formed with people attempting to snap up as much as possible. “It was limited to six cartons per family,” says Huang. “At McDonald's, there were no potato fries. Just yucca.”
So, what of well-heeled Caracas? Does it really exist?
“Of course it's there,” says Huang. “In all the poorest places in the world, there is another side. I was taken to parties in the wealthy, safe zones on the other side of the hills.” As with other South American cities, such as Rio, the hills in question are home to some of the worst slums on the planet. Yet, for a select – albeit increasingly trepidatious – elite, fines wines, exclusive golf clubs and Buddha Bar get-downs help dress the smudged window onto the festering ghettoes. “I saw designer handbags for sale that cost two months of a normal person's salary,” says Huang.
The decision to cast Huang as Kevin, who Juan dubs “the most exotic character in the city,” added another layer of incongruity to proceedings. “It's almost impossible to see a Venezuelan man with a Chinese friend,” says Huang. “There are hardly any Chinese in Venezuela and most of them don't speak Spanish.” Although Huang's character is introduced as an Argentine immigrant, his casting still seems a bizarre choice. Huang disagrees.
“It's completely cohesive when you see his film is not talking about Venezuela now,” he says.
Firing back at the naysayers, Huang believes debutante director Edgar Rocca is providing a much-needed getaway from the relentless negativity that has become the Venezuelan lot. The film, he says was semi-biographical and a form of catharsis for Rocca himself. “He is escaping from a reality that maybe he hates, by making a film in an imaginary world,” says Huang. “Maybe in his dream, he has a Chinese best friend.”
In fact, Huang says Rocca's life has been a composite of his two main characters. “He told me that these were different moments in his life,” he says. “Before, he always got all the girls that his friend abandoned. Then, he just got into bed with every woman he met.” From the sound of it, Rocca has not yet undergone the epiphany that causes his protagonist to mend his lascivious ways. “When we were filming, he was going out with a girl in the art department,” says Huang. “By the time we'd finished, the first assistant was pregnant.”
If the movie itself sits uneasily with quotidian reality in Venezuela, the setting for this Taiwan “premiere” is no less jarring.
We're gathered in the communal movie room at a plush, gated community in Sanxia District (三峽區), New Taipei City (新北市), to watch what is the first screening of the movie outside of Latin America. Having proved a success domestically, the film was also shown at a film festival in the Dominican Republic. It has yet to be screened in Argentina, though Huang hopes to rectify that later this year with a rather more high-profile event than the current gathering for friends. We're watching it courtesy of a private Vimeo link, which Huang says took him some time to wangle.
Huang, who organized this get-together, shot to fame in South America in 2011 when he co-starred alongside Argentine screen legend Ricardo Darin in the hit comedy “Un Cuento Chino (Chinese Take-Out or Chinese Take-Away).”
The last time I saw him in Buenos Aires in summer of 2014, he was intense and passionate, yet filled with the nonchalance that one would expect of Porteño thesp. He returned to Taiwan for the first time in more than 30 years last year and is back again this year at least until August.
Despite his success in Latin America, Huang has struggled to find meaningful work since his return. When I met him a couple of weeks ago in Taichung, he seemed to have lost some of his verve – his lip often trembling as his spoke, eyes communicating frustration. He spoke of a long-held yearning to perform in Taiwan but expressed himself disappointed with the acting scene here. Agencies, he complained, were “just cheats.”
This afternoon, he's guinea pig skittish as he introduces the movie and we try to get the laptop hooked up to the sound system. Eventually, staff are called to resolve the issue. Next, there's a lag between the dialogue and the English subtitles – for one or two Spanish-speaking members of the group, this issue is compounded by the heavy Venezuelan twang that they say is barely comprehensible to Argentine ears. Finally, things seem to smooth themselves out and we enjoy the film.
Huang's jitters are understandable. He has yet to see the film himself. As he explains, the producers were unable to fly him over for the premiere in Caracas in December. He thinks the worsening social crisis played a role, but says the main factor was probably budgetary constraints.
“I think the principal reason is the money. They would have to pay a lot of money to take me to the premiere, and at that moment they didn't know if the film would be a bestseller,” he says. “Alexander was in London and said he wasn't coming back, so they had a very sad premiere without the actors. But the film turned out to be a “taquilla,” a box office hit, so they contacted me again. If it had failed, I don't think I would have heard from them again.”
The movie is enjoyable enough, though filled with stereotypes and a rather convenient, cringe-worthy resolution. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the main character's aspiration to be a screenwriter. However, the frequent references to master filmmakers such as Truffaut, Antonioni and Buñuel feel like little more than name-dropping and even an oneiric appearance by director Román Chalbaud – a legend of Venezuelan cinema – isn't enough to convince you that this isn't just an attempt to give a bawdy comedy a high-brow sheen.
Huang is under no illusions that the film is high art, but thinks the film has merit, serving a purpose as a bit of light-hearted respite. He is also happy with the positive feedback he has received for his performance, and is poised to work with Rocca again. Again, it will all hinge on the funds being raised. “I don't think it will happen this year, unless he can find a new producer,” says Huang. “It is not easy Venezuela.”
At any rate, this one sounds a bit more Venezuelan. “This time it's about politics,” he says. “And I will play a killer.”
Editor: Edward White