Exclusive Interview: Queer Lion winning José filmmaker Li Cheng

Following our exclusive interview with Enrique Salanic, the lead actor of the Queer Lion winning Guatemalan drama José, The Queer Review‘s editor James Kleinmann spoke to the film’s director, co-writer and producer Li Cheng.

José is a gripping, layered and beautifully honest story about one working-class young man’s struggle to find himself. Made in the neorealist filmmaking tradition, José is a nuanced and vivid look at being gay in Central America.

During our conversation with Li Cheng he told us about his transition to filmmaking from a successful biotech career in cancer research, selling his apartment to make José, moving to Guatemala and undertaking an extensive interview process, how he worked with his actors on the film’s intimate scenes and wanting to make a gay classic Latino film.

Enrique Salanic in José courtesy of YQ Studio

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Your lead actor Enrique Salanic should be here with you in the US promoting the film. What are your thoughts on him not being granted a US visa for that purpose?

Li Cheng: “We are very sad, because Enrique was educated in the US and Canada and he speaks fluent English and Spanish as well as native Guatemalan languages, so he’s a great person for us to promote the film and also would’ve been good for him to get know people industry to help him get going in his career. He’s a talented actor, so we are very upset with his US visa being denied twice. I really hope that there will be a change coming regarding the US visa policy. I think the current policy really gives a bad image of the USA internationally and has for a long time already. I hope things will change.”

Whilst we are talking about Enrique, how did you cast him in the first place? Also, he does happen to be gay, was important to you that a gay actor play this character? 

“We had maybe five or six final candidates and I think he was the only gay man out of those five or six. All of them were very talented people with very good potential. But I think Enrique and Manolo had the best chemistry together. And no, it wasn’t too important that he had to be gay to do this role, but it helps for him to be a gay man because he really put some of his own experience in the movie. That really helped. In terms of how I cast him, a friend recommended him so we contacted him on Facebook telling him we’d be in Guatemala City the next day and he’d be welcome to come by around nine in the morning. He didn’t confirm and the next day we got a message from him saying “I’m here”. I told him to sit and read the synopsis first. So he was sitting there reading the synopsis and I could see his face getting excited, his eyes getting brighter, sitting very straight up with a big smile on his face and I could already see that he really desired the role. Later on we found out that it’s five hours bus ride to Guatemala City from the very small town where he lives. Although it’s a little over a hundred miles from Guatemala City, it takes a long time by bus, so he woke up at three in the morning to get to the interview! It just shows first of all the serious lack of opportunities for young men in this country and that he really wants to act, he has a passion to act. So the final cut of the movie really proved to me that he is a world class actor.”

You’ve got an interesting work background before coming to filmmaking, could you tell me a bit about what you were doing before and what it was that drew you to become a filmmaker?

“Well, I was a biotech scientist. I have a PhD in cancer cell research and I did well after graduating. I worked in a biotech company and I had a lot of patents for them and they put me in a very important position and wanted me to keep working for them. But I’d always had a passion for film, even when I was working as a scientist and I’d always studied films from the last century, from Italy mostly. I’d watch them again and again and I really appreciated them. Being a scientist, I was good at doing the research stuff, but as I started getting older, I was in my mid-thirties, I felt like I had a lot to say. I have my opinions about the world, I have views about the world that I want to express and being a scientist didn’t allow me to deliver my thoughts and views. For me, the best way to do that was through making movies. So that’s what really pushed me to do more research and more studying so I could start making films.”

Filmmaker Li Cheng courtesy of YQ Studio

And when it came to this film, Jose, I believe you sold your home so you could self-fund it, is that right?

“That’s correct, yes. Basically, in 2016 my producing partner and co-writer George and I were very upset with US politics and sensed that change was coming and there was a lot of hatred towards Latin American people. We lived in Denver at that time and we have a lot of Latino friends, and they’re very nice people so instead of building the wall we really wanted to make a love story movie. I had a strong desire to do that and as scientists we don’t know many film people at all anywhere in world. As you know funding is kind of networking if you don’t know anybody in the business and you don’t have a filmmaking track record it’s going to be very difficult to get funding. The situation was urgent with the new president coming in, and I felt that if we spent two years writing grants and applying for funds that would be wasted time. I wanted to do it earlier to help people. So we had an apartment there and the housing market went up so we decide to sell and use the money to make a film. It was most the most efficient way of doing it.”

What drew you to Guatemala specifically for this story? You wrote the screenplay in an interesting way as a result of interviews you were doing there, can you give us an insight into that process?

“Back in 2016 we had no idea about Guatemala and I had been to South America only once and never to Central America, so it was all kind of new. We decided to do a lot of interviews in the region, so we did a lot of travelling across twenty Latin American cities and we talked to hundreds of young guys about their lives; their loves, their troubles, their emotions.”

Enrique Salanic in José courtesy of YQ Studio

And were these all young gay men?

“Well, at first we never thought about having a gay man in the story as matter of fact. We started in São Paulo and we did get in touch with some gay men there and we sensed that they had a little bit more difficulty, and pain and suffering than straight people, so we were thinking that could be a better choice given the background of the slightly more conservative Latin American society. So as we kept going we sensed that would be a better choice to have a gay love story. The young people in South America inspired us, but we still felt that we hadn’t got the whole picture yet and we didn’t feel so inspired that we wanted to write a story straight away. We wanted to keep researching, rather than writing. Then when were discussing where we should go next, we thought Central America, as we’d never been there. Guatemala is the largest country there so we flew there first. We were very surprised and shocked by people living in poverty, the violence and the roughness. We found that the typical young man’s daily life was taking two hours to commute to the centre of the city to work an eight to ten hour day, making five dollars and then spending two hours to get home again to a very poor slum or suburb area. This is very common in Central America and even most of South American is like that too, but Guatemala is kind of extreme. And the homophobia; 90% of people consider themselves homophobic and also the rising force of the evangelical church and it’s very anti women’s choice. Meanwhile Guatemala has the highest birth-rate in Latin American countries and half the population is under 19, so there’s a strong youth culture there and so it’s very hopeful too. All those elements gave us very strong confidence in choosing Guatemala and plus the USA is responsible for their civil war which lasted thirty years and normalised violence there. So as Americans we feel responsible.”

Enrique Salanic in José courtesy of YQ Studio

Obviously there are many examples of filmmakers shooting movies that are about other cultures set in other countries, but did you have any reservations about being outsiders making this film about Guatemala in Guatemala?

“We absolutely didn’t want people to feel like ‘oh, these two Americans came to our country and made a film that didn’t show the authentic Guatemala’. We were absolutely afraid of that, so we lived there for a year before we started shooting to have a sense of how people live their lives. We lived in 25 different apartments over two years, we used Airbnb and we changed apartment every month to get a sense of different locations. In the meantime we were constantly doing interviews with Guatemalan young people just to have a sense of what their reality is and so we were not making things up. So all that paid off and in fact there were some locations that we picked that my cast and crew didn’t know. When we wrote the script we already put the exact locations of where we wanted to shoot in there; street number, street name, the zone number. My cast and crew said about some of them ‘oh, those are dangerous in the red zone, you shouldn’t go there’. But when we did they said ‘oh, this is a great place to shoot!.’ On the other hand when we were doing the final edit on the movie I had some Guatemalan friends watch it to see if it felt authentic and they said ‘absolutely’. They were very shocked and said ‘wow, you really captured Guatemala City’. So to me that was a big compliment. And not many people have done that before. Latino media and TV, they completely focus on the white people and the upper class with those kind of melodramas. Mexican TV was very influential in Guatemala, so there are a lot of kind of telenovela melodramas going on about middle and upper class, just cheesy love stories,.”

I love the locations, that street corner where the Luis and Jose meet up is stunning. And it’s an interesting point that someone local making the film would have locations that they wouldn’t even consider. José’s phone is important to him isn’t, it’s his window to the outside world in a way. He’s stressed when he can’t get Wi-Fi access at work, and then he’s looking at his phone at the dinner table while he’s having his soup and it lights up his face in bed at night.

“That’s basically the digital era we are living in now. Everybody is like this there and they are generally using super cheap phones and a lot of people’s screens are broken. Their phone will be robbed a few times too. Almost all of the interviewees we talked to in Guatemala had got their phone robbed at least once. So that’s the life they are living and they can connect to people on the phone. Also there are some cruising areas too which people know about through apps like Grindr, Tinder, Hornet, that kind of thing. The whole world is at this crossroads from reality to virtual reality and actually to me I don’t know if it’s better for humanity. I feel like a person to person connection is much better than connecting on a computer or phone or app or in virtual reality. I think virtual reality gives a lot of efficiency to the human world, but also it is causing very hard damage to humanity in terms of connections. In person they touch each other, there’s closeness and intimacy, that’s the last land of humanity and it’s going down fast. We interviewed many older gay guys and they would say that it’s impossible to have a romantic relationship nowadays and that it’s difficult to find love now, harder than it was before. Before cell phones people met each other and if they truly fell for each other they’d be together for good you know. Nowadays it’s a lot easier to find people for sex, but it’s also getting more people addicted to their phones and some people don’t even meet, they’re just on their phone again and again chatting. It’s a serious topic and I will tackle it more in my future projects for sure.”

Manolo Herrera and Enrique Salanic in José. Courtesy of YQ Studio

Talking about connecting, one of the scenes that I really liked is when José and Luis and exploring each other’s bodies and asking about the scars and learning about each other’s pasts through that. It’s a beautiful moment in the film and speaks to what you were saying about technology, it’s something you can’t do on an app. A very intimate scene.

“For lovers to explore each others bodies is such a beautiful thing. What is interesting however in the shot, the scars on Enrique’s body were real. When we did rehearsal I asked him about the scars he had on his body then when it came to shoot the scene I told him to just repeat what he’d told me, so the words are from him himself, his own life. That’s how he got his own scars. Which I thought was very touching and more intriguing for the audience too.”

Thinking of dating apps, there’s one central relationship in the film but we see José have quite a few hook-ups with different guys, what does sex mean in José’s life?

“It’s essential and those young guys, you know in Latino culture they mature early and at a very early stage they have sex, both straight and gay. We have actually had some audience members complaining ‘oh, he’s so promiscuous’. Well, maybe to their standards, but to me that’s just reality. You can go from being promiscuous to starting something with someone you truly love and like José does.”

How about working with the actors on the intimate scenes and the sex scenes. How did you go about making them feel comfortable? And also how did want those scenes to look, because they aren’t shot like “movie sex scenes”, they look authentic.

“We spent time together, me and my actors, watching movies and I always pointed out to them ‘look, in this sex scene they take of their clothes and boom they cut to their faces, and then they cut to a part of their body and then it’s over’. To me, those different cuts that try to avoid a certain part of the body, they’re very distracting to an audience and anything distracting the audience from emotional involvement and participation to me is a failure. So I really emphasised with them that we want to show the Latino passion and that’s what I’m attracted to. We don’t want to fake things, we wanted to try to make everything as natural and real as possible and they really go it, you know. When we did the motorcycle scene and I showed them motorcycle scenes in other movies. I’d say, ‘look at this one, it’s boring, they’re sitting together with music in the background, we get it they’re having a good time, but you don’t see any intimacy there’. I was telling them, you’re two young guys, you’re energetic, you’re virile, you know you’re touching each other for sure because you’re on a motorcycle and one’s of the front, one’s on the back and you’re gonna have a hard-on touching each other and you’re going to talk about that aren’t you? Wouldn’t you tell your lover ‘I want you’, that kind of thing? So that’s what they did and we actually got tonnes of good footage for that sequence.”

Enrique Salanic and Manolo Herrera in José. Courtesy of YQ Studio

I liked the way Luis was nuzzling against José’s ear. It’s very sweet. What about the cinematography more generally; we’ve spoken about the sex scenes, which tend to be one shot, static with no cutting away. When he’s out on the streets there’s a lot more motion, perhaps conveying his emotional state, we see him running towards the camera and the camera often follows him about the city. It’s quite dynamic.

For the outdoor scenes we always felt that we wanted the camera to be very observational, very objective. The audience will feel like I’m moving the camera, I’m seeing him, I see what he sees, and it’s just showing the objective reality of the outside world. For the inside shots, because all those hotel scenes are so delicate, we were very afraid of any camera movement, worrying that it could affect the audiences emotional involvement in the scene. So we tried to make the camera as static as possible and just let just the actors do things. For me that works well. Paolo Giron, he’s a great cinematographer. It’s the first time we’d worked together. He graduated from Buenos Aires from a famous film school and he’s done ten feature films and we were very lucky to have him and he contributed a lot to the film language.”

How did you work with him in other ways in terms of the lighting choices, that very natural colour palette?

“We tried to use as much natural light as possible to give a sense of reality. We wanted to make something that was in the social realism style, that’s always been one of my passions. We shot a lot of real exterior locations with a very limited crew which was big plus. We only had seven or eight people in the crew working together. When you have fifty people on a crew, which we couldn’t afford anyway, it makes it very difficult to shoot in real locations, because everyone starts to look at the camera.”

Was there a filmmaker in particular or even a specific film that you were influenced by or inspired by for this film?

“For sure, there’s no doubt about it. To me all the masterpieces were last century’s works. I’m very influenced by the Italian neorealists like Visconti, Pasolini, De Sica, as well as filmmakers like Antonioni. All those great Italian filmmakers are hugely influential and we studied them a lot together with my cinematographer. Also the Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien was very influential, his ideology of wanting to show the action or the drama very naturally instead of faking it, or producing a melodrama, that would be the worst thing of all cinema.”

Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together

Do you have a favourite LGBTQ+ movie, or if you prefer a play, novel, artwork or music that really resonates with you?

“When we started rehearsing and we were deciding on movies to study together I was always telling my actors that for white gay people they have Brokeback Mountain, for Asian gay people they have Happy Together, but for Latino gay people we don’t have a strong candidate and we wanted to make a gay classic Latino movie in a very artistic way. Actually, I don’t like to call those films gay movies. They are really art films, but it just happens to be that lead character is gay.”

I know José has screened at a film festival in Guatemala, but is it likely to get a theatrical release there?

“I would seriously doubt it based on the nudity in the film. It would be great though, I really want it to, but it would be difficult. When they released Moonlight there a few years ago people were walking out of the theatres and were really were pissed off by it.”

But you had a great opening weekend in New York didn’t you?

“Yes. I have been to at least thirty film festivals to promote José but to be in cinemas with the direct audience this is a little bit different and people are very sharp with the questions they ask. So I was really pleased with all four Q&As at the Quad in New York, which were sold out, and people were lining up to thank me for making the film after the Q&As, so it was very touching. That’s the best it can get as a filmmaker, to have people thank you for making it, that they really appreciate it, it was very satisfying and moving.”

José is currently playing in New York, Los Angeles, Pasadena and Chicago. It opens this Friday February 14th in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Aventura, Boca Raton, Lake Worth, San Diego, Tempe and Palm Springs. For theatre information, showtimes and to purchase tickets head to Outsider Pictures’ website here.

Enrique Salanic and Manolo Herrera in José. Courtesy of YQ Studio

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: