“I’m No Longer Here - Review -Ya no estoy aqui
“I’m No Longer Here”, (Ya no estoy aqui) is a Mexican Spanish language movie that is distributed by Netflix. It was written, directed and produced in 2019 by Fernando Frias de la Parra; with cinematography by Damian Garcia; starring Juan Daniel Garcia Trevino as the main character, Ulises. Based in 2011, Ulises is a 17 year old gang member who lives in the Monterrey slums, a town near the border of the United States. Cartel violence is common in this area, combined with the poverty of the slums.
Monterrey is a city of extreme poverty and the ominous specter of the murderous violence of the drug Cartels looms around every corner, with daily gunfire being the norm. To cope with this violence, coming together for any type of joy is essential for life and community. Cumbia, or slowed sound Columbia music, is a core part of a tribal dance that residents of Monterrey participate in. Cumbia came about accidentally from original DJs who were spinning it. One DJ’s turntable was breaking down, and it played the records at a slower speed. He and his friends liked this slower sound and it caught on to become more popular particularly in Monterrey. An eclectic collection of non-violent gangs participated in nightly dances of Cumbia to show solidarity and community.
To balance the arduous conditions of normal life, many of the young people in Monterrey participate in gangs and the Cumbia lifestyle. Cumbia involves group dancing, with strong tribal roots. Ulises is the leader of his young non-violent gang, Los Terkos. Terkos means, “stubborn or resistant to change”. The Terkos sport creative punk-like haircuts, brightly colored, baggy clothes for the guys and skimpy outfits for the girls. Because of their unusual haircuts, the young men in these gangs were often targeted by police as being “troublemakers”. Cumbia is the connective thread for all the rival gangs, and they have regular dance-offs to showcase their skills. Ulises is a particularly skilled dancer from an extremely young age, and many are wowed by his moves. The Cumbia style of dancing almost resembles breakdancing with some of the foot work, combined with Indigenous tribal dancing, with lots of spinning in circles crouched down low.
The story is presented non-linearly, with flashback scenes interspersed, especially when Ulises is asleep. Ulises is forced to migrate illegally to Queens, NY, when a death threat is placed on himself and his family from a rival gang. He is smuggled into the United States in the cargo area of a van. He struggles to acclimate to life in the US, as he doesn’t understand English, and is made fun of because of his unusual haircut and taste in music by his Mexican immigrant ex-roommates in Queens. He is befriended by 16 year old Lin (Xueming Angelina Chen), yet he continues to struggle with homelessness, and homesickness. He disdains all other music other than Cumbia. This accentuates his alienation of being in a foreign land whenever he hears other types of music. He tells a Columbian sex worker, explaining his love of Cumbia, “If it’s slower, it lasts longer. If it's slower, you feel it more.”
The sweeping cinematography above the urban ruins of Monterrey, depicting a bird’s eye view that flies into the thick of the communal dances which happen day and night, evokes a feeling of the viewer being part of the dance. Ulises dreams of singing and dancing the Cumbia with his young gang in these dances. His stoic, brooding demeanor disappears completely when he is full in the Cumbia spiraling groove. The undercurrent of perpetual violence and bloodshed within the Monterrey slums is tensely observed and experienced between the extended joyous dance scenes.
Shadows, light, and three dimensionality is incorporated in nearly every shot. An out of focus object in the foreground often layers over the actors in the background. A view from inside the shed on the top of Lin’s building, the dirty window barely letting in the sunlight, with “Terkos” scrawled on it. Even the soundscape is three dimensional. Cumbia is a near constant soundtrack, most often from the first person perspective of Ulises listening on his headphones, but also from the amplified sound of the group dances, or the Terkos listening on their portable radios. The sound distorts and clarifies as the camera pans out and zooms in closer to the action. Cumbia echoes through the tunnel that Ulises is walking through. From the tinny sound from headphones, to the all encompassing bass from being in the middle of a dance circle.
Reflections are incorporated in several scenes, either from a mirror in a bar, or glass of a window, or a side view mirror of a gang member’s vehicle. Partial views of feet and legs, or of heads and torsos, add to the mystery of the storyline. Repeating line perspectives drawn through corners of rooms or buildings, and the convergence of the narrow city corridors of Monterrey, convey the intersections of colliding worlds, via dream or waking reality. Observations of other people in the foreign city Ulises finds himself, accentuate a surreal dreaminess that wends its way through his actual sleeping dreams. His loneliness and isolation in the United States contrasts with the strong community of friends and family he left behind in Monterrey. Eventually he makes his way back to Monterrey, but at the cost of no longer being the Terkos leader. He watches his former gang friends, silently from a distance, witnessing how they have been swept up into the gun wielding violence of the ever present Cartels. Yet, the dance of the Cumbia still connects and uplifts.
“I’m No Longer Here” is currently streaming on Netflix. This film has won many prestigious awards, including the Golden Ariel for Best Picture, Best Direction, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, and so on. It also won Best Narrative Feature in Ashland International Film, and Best Actor (Garcia) and Best Film in the Cairo International Film Festival. It is an incredible movie and well worth the watch.
Review by Maureen Langston
Trailer for Ya No Estoy Aqui, I'm no longer here.