Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 26th, 2020
I’m No Longer Here (Fernando Frias, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.
Gorgeously photographed, even in its grittiest moments, and evocatively edited between its two time frames, I’m No Longer Here tells the story of young Ulises as he embarks on an odyssey to and from the underworld. In a nice twist on the usual state of geopolitical affairs, that hellish place is the United States; Mexico, despite its many problems, especially in the northeastern city of Monterrey from which hails our hero, is cast as the longed-for place of return. And who can blame Ulises? Once he arrives in New York, he is lost and adrift, cast off from all he has ever known and treated like an oddity to be scorned.
Let’s back up for a moment. “Some time ago,” as the film begins, there lived a gang, of sorts, comprised of young people, calling themselves “Los Terkos,” who prided themselves on their stubborn uniqueness (as a group, for as individuals within that group they share a lot in common). Favoring unconventional hairstyles and baggy clothes, they carry themselves apart from the more violent, armed older gangs, affiliated with cartels. Their drug of choice is the cumbia music they call Kolombia, which mixes indigenous and African-influenced beats, to which they dance in wild abandon.
No one is better at dancing than Ulises, head of the Terkos, who does his best, at 17, to keep everyone out of trouble. Right at the first fade from black, however, we see that something has gone very wrong, for there he stands, on a lonely hilltop, overlooking the striking mountains in the distance, saying goodbye to another Terkos member as he departs for what we will soon see is Queens, NY. The why of it will come out later, as director Fernando Frias (Rezeta) slowly, and effectively, weaves together the threads of this tale, past and present, into a powerful evocation of exile and homesickness. There’s no way Ulises should ever go back if he expects to survive, yet perhaps the only way he will survive is if he returns.
Newcomer Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño, as Ulises, delivers a mesmerizing performance as a once-charismatic leader reduced to the status of unwanted, undocumented immigrant. Sullen kid, at times (and who can blame him?), he also has the capacity to blossom into multidimensional young adult as he fights to maintain his dignity and agency in a world determined to rob him of both. Even those who are sympathetic, such as Lin (Xueming Angelina Chen), the 16-year-old child of Chinese immigrants who befriends him, turn out to see him as more symbol than fully actualized human being (she means well, but as an acclimated immigrant has forgotten her outsider status). And so Ulises is forced to increasingly go it alone. Worse, if he does travel back to Monterrey, will it be the same as it was?
As powerful as the cinematography, editing and performances may be (and they are), the script falters in places as Frias occasionally forces coincidence into the narrative in less than ideal ways. The overall takeaway, however, by the end, is of a fine hand behind the camera, framing his actors in beautiful compositions. Ulises may no longer be here, but we can watch him there, on the screen, in all his majestic glory.