Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Hard Labor: This Store is Cursed

There is one cursed shop in every neighborhood. Despite an apparently prime location, nobody can make a go of it there. In the case of this Brazilian grocery, it is not just bad Feng shui. There is a sinister air hanging over the place. Unfortunately, the global recession raises the stakes of failure for the would-be grocer and her suddenly unemployed husband in Juliana Rojas & Marco Dutra’s Hard Labor (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Frankly, Helena should have started walking after taking one gander at grim, long shuttered store. It looks like a perfect location to film torture porn. Yet, she has her heart set on transforming it into a mid-sized neighborhood supermarket. She really should have let the idea go once she learned her middle-management husband Octavio was just downsized. Plus, she is about to hire Paula as their live-in maid—off the books, of course. Nevertheless, she is convinced this is the perfect opportunity for them.

Needless to say, there are problems right from the start, like mysterious foul stenches and black viscous ooze flowing up from cracks in the floor. The snarling dog often prowling about around closing time is also a tad ominous. There is just something supernaturally wrong about the place. Whatever it is, it causes bad vibes that threaten to undermine Helena’s business.

Four or five years ago, condescending filmmakers discovered this bizarre phenomenon called “unemployment,” in which people want to work (can you imagine?), but can’t find jobs. To distinguish Labor from the field of austerity and downsizing films, Rojas & Dutra add legit horror movie elements, but they never really let them loose to play. In fact, they have a maddening habit of cutting away from all the payoff scenes, just before they get good (from a fan’s perspective).

As her namesake, Helena Albergaria is frighteningly single-minded in her pursuit of green grocer success, but after a while we just so get her dual role as exploiter and exploited. Marat Descartes also does a nice job expressing Octavio’s insecurity and rage. However, the whole time we just want to see the secret behind the grocery walls.

Without question, Helena’s store is a wildly eerie setting, perfectly appointed by production designer-art director Fernando Zuccolotto. It is just a shame Rojas & Dutra do not let more things go bump there, especially considering how primed we are from Matheus Rocha’s moody cinematography. Yet, they refuse to indulge in much genre business. Ironically, this results in more unanswered questions rather than less. Regardless, we have been down this road before, with better films (like Kiyoshi Kursawa’s Tokyo Sonata) and worse (such as Álex de la Iglesia’s As Luck Would Have It). Stylish but ultimately an in-between puzzler, Hard Labor opens this Friday (10/30) in New York, at the Cinema Village.