“If there’s a gun in the first act, it must go off by the third.” That’s the gist of an old dramatic rule, often attributed to author Anton Chekhov, that still works as good advice to aspiring storytellers about focusing on the important and throwing away the superfluous. Still, a true artist masters a rule to later break it. The best example of this is the MacGuffin, the name director Alfred Hitchcock gave to that element which holds no value and/or serves no purpose other than to advance the story. As a new step forward in the evolution of Dominican cinema, their clever filmmakers pay homage to both concepts by making a MacGuffin the star of their newest release, La Gunguna. And yes, it’s a gun. And of course it goes off in the first act!
La Gunguna in a Nutshell
It also gets around for such a puny .22 caliber plot device. Near the Dominican-Haitian border, it is first sold to a corrupt Army Sargeant (Teo Terrero) by Betania (Patricia Ascuasiati), a lawyer-witch with a side business of selling firearms named after Afro-Dominican folk figures. She refers to la Gunguna less as a means of defense and more as an amulet that will shield its owner from harm, as long as its one rule is never broken. Its alleged backstory tells of countless victims and connects it to historical baddies such as Dictator Rafael Trujillo and worse. “Gunguna” alludes to a local snake-charming incarnation of the biblical St. Martha, sister of Lazarus and Mary Magdalene. (Anybody remember where she’s from?) The name also sounds like a non-Anglo speaker trying to say “a gun’s gun”, or like it derives from the Hindi gungunana, which means “to sing”.
That’s all quite interesting, but does it matter? It’s a MacGuffin, remember? Of course it doesn’t, except for the fact that this pea-shooter with a pedigree links the narratives of all the people trying to get their hands on it.
Raiders of the Lost Gun
Puerto Rican pimp ‘el Bori’ (Jaime Tirelli) and his tough-as-nails daughter Yosivette (Janina Irizarry) want it as a sadistic collector piece. The pool-playing con gang led by Pancho (Vlad Sosa), Stuttering Martín (Isaac ‘Panky’ Saviñón), Bárbara ‘la Maeña’ (Nashla Bogaert) and the Mummy (Jean Gabriel Guerra) want to sell it to ‘el Bori’ for a hefty profit. Local Chinese mob boss Don Chu (Tung Chi Hsu) and his son Chuito (Rich Wong) want it back, as far as I can tell, because nobody steals from the Chinese Mafia! Barfly Puchy (Jalsen Santana) doesn’t even know it exists; he just wants another drink, a ride to the hospital and for music to be good again, brother!
Connecting the Dots
If, like the titular pistol, there’s a character that links all others, it would be dirt-poor Montás (Gerardo ‘Cuervo’ Mercedes), an unemployed construction worker who becomes la Gunguna’s latest owner after witnessing a disagreement between Haitian worker Azul (Toussaint Merionne) and a moneylender (Miguel Ángel Martínez) working under Chu. Played dead-serious by Gerardo ‘Cuervo’ Mercedes, Montás is the closest thing La Gunguna has to a good guy, this considering the fact that at one point he’s riding a taxicab on his way to the President’s home to threaten (murder?) him.
A Looker for Sure
That La Gunguna looks gorgeous isn’t surprising. After all, producer Juan Basanta and first-time director Ernesto Alemany are both veterans of Dominican advertising and music video production. (Basanta also directed the great-looking Biodegradable.) They deserve extra praise, however, for keeping the movie consistently funny and compelling. Without all the swear words, a preteen kid would probably tolerate its almost tasteful degree of senseless violence (I’m kidding… leave the kids at home).
Miguel Yarull’s screenplay, adapted from his own short story Montás, keeps the film “Dominican” without it resorting to buffoonery or inside jokes… well, very few of those at least. Through the eyes of Montás—and the gun’s own point-of-view—we witness a summation of the Dominican Republic’s true underbelly, played for laughs but still gritty, detailed, tangible. It helps that the entire cast commits to the material, especially Santana as Puchy, Wasen Ou as a Chinese taxi driver and Saviñón as Martín (a monumental improvement from his bland, bearded baddie in Código Paz).
The film has plot holes, sure. There is no moral or lesson to be learned from it. One may argue that none of its characters’ story arcs really change, unless they got hurt as a consequence of their proximity to the weapon. To paraphrase Freud, la Gunguna might just be a gun and nothing more. But see, it’s not supposed to be a perfect movie (again, MacGuffin). This is pulp magazine material, tabloid journalism with a plot, Dominicana by way of Elmore Leonard. Is it original? Nope. It owes a lot to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodríguez, with sly nods to Gore Verbinski’s The Mexican. But it feels fresh and has a true Dominican personality. More importantly, its microcosm is thought out, open-ended and worth revisiting: each of La Gunguna‘s main and supporting characters deserve their own movie, not unlike those in George Lucas’ Star Wars series.
Now thanks to Disney and J.J. Abrams, many Star Wars characters will probably get their own film. It’s a brave new world, full of possibilities, and should La Gunguna become a box-office hit in its country and abroad, we may see it spawn sequels and spinoffs in our lifetime. Rise of la Maeña. Liborio vs. Anaïta. Taxi Chino. Betania and the Border Patrol. Montás Catches a Break. Puchy’s Playlist. Don Chu Begins. Who knows? Interconnected superhero flicks are all the rage these days. Why not have a Dominican antihero cinematic universe driven by puny, overrated weaponry?
Now showing at Caribbean Cinemas.
Movie title: La Gunguna
Movie description: A Dominican crime story that gives nods to Tarantino, Hitchcock and others while creating a universe all its own.
Date published: 2015-06-16
Director(s): Ernesto Alemany
Actor(s): Gerardo Mercedes, Jalsen Santana, Isaac Saviñón, Nashla Bogaert, Jaime Tirelli, Janina Irizarry, Wasen Ou, Vlad Sosa, Tung Chi Hsu, Rich Wong, Francisco Cruz, Toussaint Merionne, Jean Gabriel Guerra, Miguel Ángel Martínez, Patricia Ascuasiati
Genre: Action, Crime, Comedy