The Golden Dream (La jaula de oro) (Diego Quemada-Diez – Guatemala/Spain/Mexico) 102 minutes
It is a strange coincidence that two wildly different films about immigration/emigration were released this year with roughly the same title. There was the sunny and very light French-Portuguese film La cage d’orée (‘The Gilded Cage’) and now there is Spanish director Diego Quemada-Diez’s significantly darker Mexican film La jaula de oro (‘The Golden Cage’, though it has been retitled The Golden Dream for English-speaking markets). Quemada-Diez’s film covers similar ground to Cary Fukunaga’s Sin nombre (2009), which followed the efforts of Honduran migrants to reach the US and Victor Nava’ El Norte, where the hopeful emigrants were Guatemalan. The Golden Dream’s teenage heroes also hail from Guatemala though this time they are fleeing poverty rather than war and political repression. Juan (Brandon Lopez), a cynical and moody sixteen-year-old, is joined by his friends Samuel (Carlos Chajon) and Sara (Karen Martinez) in their journey across the border into Mexico and then north to California. Sara cuts her hair and disguises herself as a boy, for reasons that become apparent later in the film.
When Mexican police arrest and deport them, Samuel gives up and decides to return home. They have now been joined by a Maya Indian, Chauk (Rodolfo Dominguez), who speaks no Spanish and who is the butt of Juan’s racial bullying. Sara sticks up for the resilient and selfless Chauk and Juan grudgingly agrees to let him tag along.
The Golden Dream is familiar enough stuff but it is lifted above the run-of-the-mill humanist drama by the soare sobriety of Quemada-Diez’s style. He manages to keep sentimentalism at bay for the most part, with one lapse late on. Though we see some acts of solidarity and kindness from ordinary people towards the masses of strangers hitching a ride north on the roofs of freight trains, Quemada-Diez knows that the decks are stacked firmly against the migrants. Since the narco-isation of Mexican society in the 1980s, the journey has become even more precarious than before with more than just social adversity and natural conditions to surmount. The cartels prey on the migrants, whom they see as expendable, to carry out dangerous undesirable work and there are lesser venal ‘entrepreneurs’ operating in the drug-lords’ slipstream. Quemada-Diez’s masterstroke is to square the demands of the drama with credible shocks emanating from the simplest situations. The Golden Dream is of a genre that affords little wriggle room for thematic or formal innovation but Quemada-Diez is attuned to both the often super-human determination of the Wretched of the Earth to reach the developed world, no matter the risks, and to the sorrow that lies forever in the hearts of even those who make it safely in the end. A fine debut from a very promising director.