Welcome back to my Tears for Fears marathon, where I will be covering every movie featuring the Mexican folk legend La Llorona in anticipation of her newest movie in April...
Director: Benjamin Williams
Cast: Tom Parker, Ana Patricia Rojo, Dee Wallace
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
One of the reasons I love exploring low budget cinema is the people making it. They exist in a space entirely separate from Hollywood. Sure, this means sometimes (in fact, most times) the films aren't particularly well made and frequently aren't very "good," by the most objective measurement of cinema it's possible to use. But the stories these people choose to tell tend to be entirely personal and unique, free of the rules, restrictions, and tampering of the studio system. Even when they're doing their best to imitate Hollywood genres and tropes, it's distorted through the lens of an entirely non-professional person in a distinctly non-Hollywood place.
This was true of 1991's atrocious La Llorona, which was a lovely exploration of a Mexican fishing village that thought it was a scary movie about La Llorona. 2007's J-ok'el (pronounced "Joe-quelle") is certainly better, but works in a very similar anthropological vein. From square one, in fact. J-ok'el is a name for La Llorona apparently taken from the indigenous Mayan dialect of Tzotzil, something I never would have learned if not for this deeply bland, mediocre film.
Whoops, did I show my hand too early?
When his half-sister joins the ranks of a rising number of missing children in Chiapas, Mexico, American George Christensen (Tom Parker) arrives in town to investigate her disappearance. He enlists the help of Carmen Romero (Ana Patricia Rojo), a local woman who has offered to translate, and pointedly does not receive the help of his estranged mother Helen (Dee Wallace), who resents him for not having visited her in a decade.
What he's being doing for all these years, we'll never know because this movie doesn't care about such pretty things as his life before, how he can afford to spend so much time away from work, or what he's interested in beyond denouncing superstition and religions bullshit so Carmen can hem and haw and give this film its only minuscule scrap of conflict. Of course George is wrong. J-ok'el is haunting the town, snatching away children who live in broken homes.
The sheer amount of broken homes in this small town is not subtext, nor something the film remotely wishes to explore. In case you were wondering.
So! J-ok'el is, almost completely by accident, an expression of the racial and social strata of Chiapas. Its plot primarily follows the separation between a white American family and the town itself. Though Helen has lived in town for many years, married a high class local, and is an honorary member of the community, she rarely strays away from her resort-like mansion. And though George assures himself he cares about all the children in town, not just his sister, his refusal to accept the beliefs and traditions of Chiapas is a constant impediment to his investigation (in one of the first scenes, the police worry about how it would look if they gave preferential treatment to the needs of a white stranger more than that of the locals - in fact, its depiction of the police is frequently J-ok'el's most intentional and interesting facet throughout).
But on top of that, J-ok'el also depicts the strained relationship between the local Mexicans and the indigenous people who live just outside of town. The Llorona figure haunting this movie is implicitly blamed on them, and that's no accident.
Of course, this is all Yours Truly reading between the lines on a tedious movie that mostly wants to be a Lifetime mystery about Mexican folklore. But the fact is, everything I mentioned is present, purposeful or not. Benjamin Williams' choice to film and set the movie in Chiapas (presumably a town the producer lives in or at least has some familiarity with or access to) gives it a texture and complexity it wouldn't have has if it was a Hollywood production set in some nameless desert town.
And though Parker would be surely cut out of a full-on Hollywood production, weirdly, Dee Wallace would probably still be in it. That woman has noting but hustle.
And now, the hammer falls. J-ok'el is a rough watch. It has decent cinematography and an almost too good score, but it lacks even a frisson of horror. The bulk of the movie involves itself with George wandering around being an asshole to natives, but when the alleged scary scenes creep in, they deflate even the milquetoast, flabby tension the film drums up between its characters. It's astonishingly lame; J-ok'el is depicted almost entirely by a bit of white cloth flicked in front of the camera by some offscreen P.A.
This is arguably in service of a third act twist (a twist that both destroys every potential coherent theme the film might have built while simultaneously redeeming the whole affair by centering a totally batshit performance and hilariously out of left field), but in this cassette end utterly fails to justify the means. The means still could have tried to be scary or atmospheric, instead of flat and ploddingly edited.
By the time it gets to the bizarre interludes where George chats up a random French woman in a bar, or awkwardly interacts with a stock footage leopard, you're begging on your hands and knees for the torment to end. And the plot's complete failure to be interesting does little to distract you from how much it's riddled with holes (why exactly are there still children playing outside alone at night two weeks deep into an unprecedented spate of kidnappings?).
J-ok'el at least had the slightest sense of what it was capable of, which blows the '91 Llorona out of the water. But literally the only viable reason to watch this is if ou want to follow along with my marathon but hate subtitles and are thus incapable of watching the many other, better, non-English entries therein.
TL;DR: J-ok'el is surprisingly well made for such tragically tedious BS.
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