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Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2004

Sowing seeds of sleaze

Los Debutantes

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Andres Waissbluth
Running time: 115 minutes
Language: Spanish (Japanese subtitles)
Opens Oct. 16
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Chilean director Andres Waissbluth has obviously seen some Quentin Tarantino films: Anyone ready for another tale of a gangster who falls for his scary boss' girlfriend when he's supposed to be looking after her? But judging from his debut, "Los Debutantes" (titled "Hustle!" in Japan), Waissbluth has a more direct and less ironic tendency toward pulp fiction than his idol.

News photo
Antonella Rios in "Los Debutantes"

"Los Debutantes" wastes no time whatsoever in letting you know that it's a straight-up exploitation film, the likes of which the late Russ Meyer (see story below) would surely have approved of. Two brothers go out for a night on the town, and not even five minutes into the film, they're sitting in a strip club as the camera gives us long, ogling shots of a pole-dancer in action.

Older brother Silvio (Nestor Cantillana) is taking his 17-year-old bro' Victor (Juan Pablo Miranda) out for his birthday, with plans for him to lose his virginity as soon as possible. Victor's dragged into a back room by dancer/hooker Solange, played by Chilean vamp Anita Alvarado, known in her home country as "Chile's geisha" for being the mistress of the suspect in a dirty money scandal in Aomori Prefecture (small world).

When Victor emerges from that seedy back room deflowered, two things happen in quick succession: One, Victor is transfixed by the highly erotic dancing of Gracia (Antonella Rios), who appears wearing nothing but whipped cream; Two, Silvio appears from another back room and announces he's got a job with Don Pascual, the Mafia-type who runs the club. Drinks are poured.

Victor, a romantic type, starts skipping school to track down Gracia, convinced that she's some sort of fallen angel who only needs a good dose of "pure" lovin' to be saved.

After tracking her down to her day job (working at a porn-cinema box office; is this kid blind, or what?) he asks her out for ice cream. Persistence is everything, and she says "yes."

When Silvio hears about Victor's interest in Gracia, he warns him off, saying she's the Don's girl. But Victor spots his brother kissing her one night outside the Don's house, which triggers a jealous rage. Victor fights with his brother, flees their apartment, pressures Gracia into sex and is then assaulted by a couple of the Don's heavies.

Sibling rivalry, a gangster's girlfriend -- it's easy to see where this bit of pulp is headed, but to his credit, Waissbluth shuffles the deck. At this point, the film cuts back to the opening nightclub scene and starts giving us the same series of events from Silvio's perspective.

What happened in the bar while Victor was in the back room? How did he wind up chauffeuring the boss' girl around? More importantly, how did he make the mistake of sleeping with this coked-up accident-waiting-to-happen when the Don is definitely not a guy to cross?

The film pushes forward to another near climax, then doubles back again, and yet again, to give us Don Pascual's view, and finally Gracia's view. As is the norm with film noir, she turns out not to be the romantic sex kitten or defenseless victim, but rather an arch manipulator, using her sexuality to bend every man around her for her own ends.

The multiple-viewpoint trick is neatly lifted from "Rashomon," a comparison that's not necessarily a flattering one, given that Kurosawa's film is an art-house classic, while "Los Debutantes" is such a seedy little film. Then again, one should recall that "Rashomon" itself was a Samurai genre flick about rape and murder, startlingly frank for its time.

Waissbluth obviously knows his cinema -- aside from the aforementioned Kurosawa and Tarantino quotes, David Lynch and Allejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("21 Grams") are also clear influences. The plotting is tight, the performances -- especially by Alejandro Trejo as the menacing Don -- are convincing, and the atmosphere of sex and danger is fully evoked. The film looks a bit cheap, with a very straight-on, TV-feel approach to staging the scenes, but this is nothing a bigger budget wouldn't cure in the future.

Waissbluth is smart enough to know that his biggest asset here is lead actress Rios, and he lets her steal the film. She has a compelling presence . . . even when she's not rubbing whip cream over her thighs and simulating orgasm. It's way over the top -- Rios licks an ice-cream cone with a lascivious abandon that would make a priest weep -- but no doubt about it, this is one of those sexually fearless roles that can make a career. Just ask Monica Bellucci.

Five or six years from now, when Rios is Hollywood's next Penelope Cruz (another actress who started off in racy films like "Jamon Jamon"), "Los Debutantes" will be a distant, little mentioned blip on her more "serious" resume. Yet mark my words, Googling her name will instantly bring up a slew of pics of that whipped-cream scene. Stardom is short, but notoriety is forever.

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