Thursday, April 28, 2011

Tribeca ’11: Neon Flesh

America is so puritanical. Those Christian Evangelicals in particular get so judgmental about stuff like white slavery. The sophisticated Spaniards do not suffer from such hang-ups. Indeed, two lovably roguish sex slavers are the protagonists of Paco Cabezas’ stunningly ill-conceived Neon Flesh (trailer here), which screens as a late-night Cinemania selection at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Ricky is a smalltime pimp born to the streets as the son of prostitute. With his mother Pura due to be released from prison, Ricky wants to set her up as the Madam of brick-and-mortar bordello. Being an enterprising chap, he and his colleague Angelito naturally go buy themselves some sex slaves from the friendly neighborhood human traffickers. Unfortunately, when Ricky picks up dear old mom, she does not recognize him, due to a combination of Alzheimer’s and old-fashioned denial. At least she has an aptitude for the new family business. Unfortunately, their sex club attracts the attention of the ominous vice lord El Chino, who comes looking for his cut.

Cabezas would have us believe Ricky’s abandonment issues make him sympathetic, while Angelito is not such a bad guy, because he cannot quite bring himself to murder his junkie-hooker-lover Scrag, for sentimental reasons. No, seriously. Supposedly, the slaves (since they are not working voluntarily, they should not be called prostitutes) at their Hiroshima club (even the name is problematic) are fortunate to be there, given their relatively humane treatment. For instance, rather than murdering one slave’s newborn baby, Prince Ricky arranges to sell it on the black market instead. Obviously, anyone who has a problem with any of this must be a narrow-minded knuckle-dragging fundamentalist incapable of appreciating its fringe transgressiveness.

Watching Neon leaves you feeling unclean. Clearly, Cabezas is a talented filmmaker, pulling viewers through the muck on-screen at a breakneck velocity, despite their constant resistance to the problematic subject matter. Yet, no flash and dazzle can sufficiently mask the underlying depravity.

Of course, it hardly helps matters that lead actor Mario Casas is utterly wooden and inexpressive as Ricky. Conversely, as “Princess,” the transvestite sidekick with a heart of fool’s gold, Damaso Conde’s screechy over-acting gets tiresome quickly. Frankly, only Angela Molina strikes any interesting dramatic chords as the decidedly unmatronly Pura.

Anti-heroes and moral ambiguity are all well and good, but Neon is ridiculous. Essentially, the sociopathic offspring of Pulp Fiction, Neon flaunts its presumed hipness to pre-empt criticism of its unsavory excesses. Yet, rather than desensitize viewers, the cumulative effect of the violent sleaziness weighs down Cabezas’ bullet-like pacing, which is all the film really has going for it. Unnecessary and unredeeming, Neon screens again tonight (4/28) and Friday (4/29) and will also be available through the festival’s online component.