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Sundance 2023: Rotting in the Sun, Jamojaya, Cassandro

Co-writer/director/actor Sebastian Silva disappears midway through his new film, "Rotting in the Sun." The prolific Silva hasn't been as visible in movies for about five years, so it's particularly funny to see him back on-screen, only to go missing, playing a version of himself who is exhausted with life. Doing ketamine, painting, and making movies: nothing brings him joy anymore. And so, he reads about death and the pointlessness of life while sitting in the park with his dog, who has a bad habit of eating feces. Sebastian casually Googles his name—only to find a smiley child actor of the same name—and then looks up a medicinal concoction from Tijuana that humans can use for suicide. This is just the beginning of Sebastian's meta-artistic journey in "Rotting in the Sun," a hilarious and dazzling feat of self-deprecation. 

The way in which Silva later vanishes in "Rotting in the Sun" cannot be spoiled, other than to say it makes for one of the movie's best jokes. This is a great return for Silva's sense of charcoal-black satire—here's it about influencer culture, social media brain, artistic integrity, and more.

In his latest adventure, a moping Silva collides with Jordan Firstman, a popular Hollywood influencer. Jordan meets Sebastian during an attempt to drown himself in Tijuana on a beach populated by naked gay men. Jordan (the actor's real name, he can be seen most recently in Netflix's "You People") is pushy and smitten with him, and also because he was watching Silva's "Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus" the night before. Jordan pitches a gobbledygook reality series called "You Are Me" that's somehow influenced by "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and he pushes Sebastian to collaborate on it. Jordan also wants to sleep with him. But Jordan's work does not amuse Sebastian—"You do impressions because you are nobody," Sebastian says to him. Sebastian ultimately agrees to the project if he can get some of the screenwriting fee upfront. 

"Rotting in the Sun" is a type of revue for Silva's filmography, including how his first big star, Catalina Saavedra, reappears. She was in Silva's "The Maid," and now she plays his maid, who has her own chaotic presence but is less abrasive about it. Saavedra becomes one of the movie's many colorful quandaries, and she also grounds the story as it goes in a completely different direction than it may seem. Jordan appears in the film's second half, looking for Sebastian, and Firstman's performance becomes a perfect storm of social media-fed ego and not understanding others. Pivotal scenes between Saavedra and Firstman are rife with tension and cut through with the hilarious cadence of Google Translate. 

No one does laugh-out-loud discomfort quite like Silva, who here counters his character's malaise with filmmaking that always keeps you on edge: sometimes, it's the extremely graphic gay sex that casually paints the film's canvas of cruise culture; other times, it's how the editing is randomly intercut with the innocuous TikTok garbage that Sebastian scrolls through on his phone when sitting on the toilet. "Rotting in the Sun" is another jagged odyssey from Silva, with even sharper twists a la his previous films "Crystal Fairy" or "Nasty Baby." 

Director Justin Chon returned to Sundance this year with his third world premiere for the festival, having been highlighted in previous years with "Gook” and "Ms. Purple." Throughout this previous work, he has become one of the most sensitive filmmakers working today, a major compliment. "Jamojaya," also shown as part of the festival's Premieres category, is Chon's most soulful and calibrated film yet. It proves how his urge to explore the deepest pains of his heartfelt characters can be sublime when pitched at the right volume. 

From a script co-written by Chon and Maegan Houang, "Jamojaya" has a brilliant backdrop for exploring a father and son relationship that's on the brink of changing forever: the music industry. It is a perfect setting for bold tensions of old vs. new, of what is natural vs. what is fabricated, of an artist's sense of self. But while the film is centered around rap music, it's more of an opera about identity and the bond of family. 

The son, in this case, is an Indonesian rapper named James (Rich Brian, an actual musical artist). He's on the precipice of becoming a superstar and about to record his first album in Hawaii for a major American label. His father, Joyo (Yaya A.W. Unru), is the young man's former manager, who has no experience in the industry but helped guide his son in earlier days. Now, Joyo is an unwanted guest at business dinners and concerts. James gives him a place to stay when Joyo shows up unannounced but also encourages him to go home. But Joyo persists. James worries that the record company people will just see another Indonesian man doing service work; Joyo only sees his love and admiration for his son. 

Chon gets incredible work out of his two leads, who create a deep sense of how much this father and son need each other but how distant they are set to become. Their performances inform the two halves of his direction: sometimes Chon's work has a swagger that demands your attention. Rich Brian's intensity and flow in a recording booth is matched by an exhilarating one-shot sequence in particular, in which Chon's camera takes us from a crowded dressing room, upstairs, outside, and onto the stage of James' sold-out show, only for the movie to drop its title card with one of his beats. 

In other stunning moments, Chon is preternaturally in tune with the calming gift of nature, just like Joyo. Unru's performance is a gentle marvel and is genuinely sweet each time he refuses the son's request to leave, which could easily be annoying with a different actor's approach. Some of his heartbreaking moments involve him doing his favorite morning ritual of standing on the beach and laughing, throwing his arms in the air. "Jamojaya" has an array of big emotions, and Unru brings a natural power to all of them. 

It's important how the drama here never feels easy despite being so restrained. "Jamojaya" is not only about the father aching for the love of his son; his son also has a great deal of loyalty that pains him, too. Both James and Joyo are at odds with this environment, and Chon's direction makes every bit of this marvelous story deeply felt. Their bond is everything, and it means so much when James finally decides what to do with his dad. 

Gael García Bernal gives one of his most vibrant performances in director Roger Ross Williams' "Cassandro," playing a real-life Lucha Libre wrestler who challenged a "tradition" about exoticos in the ring. Usually, people like his character Saúl Armendáriz are meant to lose and be beaten up, often to audience chants of homophobic slurs. Saúl asks why it can't happen the other way. The world of these masked men battling in a wrestling ring, with one person forced to be lesser, makes for a powerful microcosm in this story about changing harmful cycles.

Saúl Armendáriz created a Lucha Libre sensation with his powerful and flamboyant character Cassandro, and this movie tells the emotional journey behind that ascendance with a great deal of heart. It's not only about Saúl but the people in his corner, like his trainer (Roberta Colindrez) and his mother (Perla De La Rosa). Bernal's performance is the film's sweet core, his warm smile never hinting at ignorance but a certainty that his pride is greater than hate. 

But the script by co-writers Williams and David Teague is a little less stable when it comes to charting how Saúl's Cassandro became so popular. For example, it undersells one pivotal moment that should be bigger when the crowd rooting against Cassandro decides that they want to now cheer him on. And a later scene, in which Cassandro is interviewed by a former competitor about his career, feels tacked on. 

But even when "Cassandro" loses some of its emotional momentum as a biopic, it's quite a charming film to look at. Williams has previously only made documentary features ("Life, Animated," "The Apollo") and proves to be a natural with narrative visual storytelling. The wrestling scenes are playful and colorful with sumptuous framing and blocking, thanks partly to its boxy aspect ratio. Williams has an eye for amazing true stories, and "Cassandro" indicates a promising new course for Williams aside from documentary filmmaking. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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