My first acquaintance with Argentinian filmmaker Marco Berger goes back to spring 2014 when his exquisitely understated gay romance Hawaii screened at the BFI Flare, London LGBT Film Festival. Fair warning: if you’ve seen that film and found the whole “will they/won’t they” tension a bit frustrating, you might have a hard time stomaching Taekwondo’s incredibly protracted relationship tease. Berger in fact reprises the same kind of core tension in this newest effort, albeit the story and the whole context that feed such tension are rather different.
First things first, it’s interesting to note how Berger wrote Taekwondo but this time around he chose to only co-direct his new film alongside documentary filmmaker and fellow Argentinian Martín Farina who is at his first narrative fiction project here. Farina is also director of photography on the film, a role he has covered on several documentaries and as Taekwondo unfolds on screen, it’s not hard to realise how this collaboration between a gay (Berger) and straight (Farina) filmmaker was an inspired choice, given the nature of the material.
Despite a setting of idyllic isolation similar to Hawaii, this should be considered more of an ensemble piece as that film counted for almost its entirety just on two characters. Yet, whilst Taekwondo follows a group of friends who share an “all boys” summer getaway in a beautiful Buenos Aires country house, the soul of the film – that hardly relies on plot to move the story forward – lies in the burgeoning friendship between Fernando (Lucas Papa) and Germán (Gabriel Epstein), whom he met at his Taekwondo class and invites to the vacation with his friends.
We soon learn that Germán is gay and has a huge crash on Fernando but he has no clue whether the object of his affection is gay as well. Thrown into such a sausage party of heterosexual men that in typical boy-will-be-boys fashion go around the country house naked all the time or in a swimsuit at the very least, Germán seems to get more confused about the situation by the minute. Fernando is in fact one of those extremely nice guys whose signals are hard to read, especially when caught in the middle of his straight friends. And the impromptu guest is the odd one out, meeting everyone for the first time and concealing his true self.
It’s hilarious when Germán phones a gay friend for advice and expresses his frustrations, telling the guy that he would lose his mind if he found himself in the midst of such a non-stop tease show. However, why should these guys be wearing anything more than a bathing suit? After all they are on a relaxing summer vacation in a beautiful villa, spending their time between a dip in the pool and a lay in the sun, all the while drinking or smoking pot as they catch up about each other’s latest female conquest.
The two filmmakers perfectly blend in their artistic background but most importantly their different outlook on the situation. Farina’s camera indulges on the tanned and toned bodies with the frequent use of a “crotch” angle, which coming from the straight filmmaker in this directorial duo makes even more sense. He is in fact the eye into the camaraderie that’s typical of straight male virility, where you can sense a whiff of homoeroticism that remains repressed. Berger on the contrary surely brought his gay insight and sensibility in the frustration Germán experiences, as he finds himself on a daily basis in such intimate situations with these attractive guys and especially the one he fancies, yet can’t do anything about it unless he’s ready to out himself.
This is a significant film in today’s landscape of overbearing heteronormativity as it deals with the rather delicate topic of being comfortable as a gay man amidst not just your straight friends but society in general, without having to give disclaimers or explanations. That’s why I wish the filmmakers had pushed the envelope a bit further with the story and how things unfold. I can’t risk giving anything away, especially since this is one of those films where little to nothing actually happens but what does happen before credits roll is extremely significant and could’ve been made even more impactful. Some will still find the apparent limitations of the case just a result of its understated approach.
That said, aside from suffering a bit of a repetitive pacing due to the nature of its script, Taekwondo is indeed a delightful, entertaining and well observed social commentary that will keep you guessing about where things are headed for Germán and Fernando, who are portrayed by Epstein and Papas with great sensibility, timing and chemistry. Besides telling a story that’s relevant to our time, Berger and Farina have crafted a piece of filmmaking that – just like every good film always should – is able to entertain and spur pondering and conversation.