[Original title: Carne de Neon]
Neon Flesh is a film that is reminiscent of Tarantino, and of gritty Scandinavian comedies. Unfortunately, it is uneven in its humour and it is less clever than its inspirations.
I list this film as an “honourable mention” here, because it is officially a Spanish-Argentine co-production, but to me it feels more like a Spanish film rather than an Argentine one (see postscript).
Ricky, a young street gangster who is emotionally immature and who is not very bright, has a fantasy that he pursues without any sense of realism, any clear goal, and regardless of the consequences. He has been living in the streets since he was 12 years old, because his mother, a hooker, went to jail. Now she is about to be released, and Ricky is hell-bent on founding a brothel so that he can provide for his mother and give her the type of managerial position she had always wanted. Ricky convinces two other thugs, the street pimp Angelito and his muscle “The Kid”, to join him in his venture. They are both as dim-witted as him, which in the case of Angelito is especially dangerous as he believes himself to be clever.
These three men, and all the other big players around them (all men, with one exception) all pursue their respective aims without any regard of the consequences and in doing so wreck the lives of many women without hesitation.
Ricky’s naivety sets wheels into motion that he is unable to stop, and as the situation spirals out of control the film climaxes in a maelstrom of destruction.
Neon Flesh is a strange one. For the first quarter of the film you feel that the story is too careless with its humour within the realm of sex trafficking. But you have to give credit to writer/director Paco Cabezas for not shying away from actually depicting those horrors, without using any rose-tinted glasses. The resulting tonal unevenness is, unfortunately, foreboding, as the film – starting after ca. 50% of the running-time – increasingly loses its particular type of dark humour and begins to limit its tone to “gritty” and “desperate”. Some humour is supposed to come from a “comedy-of-errors” sub-plot that shifts certain (female) characters around the board like pawns. That this scene seems arbitrary is to a certain extent intended, but it is also too short and too quick (and thus too confusing), and is shoehorned in without regards to tone. It also showcases the way in which female characters are victimised in this film.
Finally, as the film ends, there is no moral to this story – there are just random survivors and random victims.
The acting is good all round. Lead actor Mario Casas pulls off the role of Ricky (which has to carry the film) nicely, and Ángela Molina puts a nice touch on Ricky’s difficult mother.
Paco Cabezas has an obvious talent for creating interesting characters and for building a world around them and their relationships. So there is great potential in the premise and in the character constellations. But the end result does not work – partly because of the tonal difficulties, partly because of certain weaknesses in the writing (some of which I have mentioned above); most importantly, however, because our antihero here is not the kind of antihero who we could really bring ourselves to feel for or care about.
Maybe it would have helped to relocate the plot outside the world of sex-slavery and within some other form of organised crime instead? That might have helped to overcome some difficulties in the writing and some tonal discrepancies. But this film has other problems than that as well.
As I said, this film has many interesting elements, and a specific style, so you might want to check it out if you are really interested. But there are many similar films out there that are better than Neon Flesh.
Rating: 5.5 to 6.0 out of 10.
PS: some more words on the “nationality” of this film:
Neon Flesh has been written and directed by Spanish filmmaker Paco Cabezas and is based on his 2005 short film of the same name. I do not know where this short film takes place, but it was apparently shot in Madrid.
The feature, however, was filmed in Buenos Aires, as far as I know; but with a largely Spanish cast. I am not sure if that move was made in order to qualify for some Argentine funding? Or if shooting a film in Argentina is really that much cheaper that it seemed worthwhile relocating an entire production including man Spanish actors to the new world? Because it seems that most of the cast, including most of the main actors, are Spanish. Of the more prominent characters, I could only find three that were played by Argentine actors (Luciano Cáceres, Darío Grandinetti, and Andrea Carballo).
All this does not yet answer the question where the story is supposed to take place. Other people may be more competent than me in recognising the skyline or identifying the license plates, I could not place any of it. What we know is that this city is supposed to be near the sea, so it cannot be Madrid; but there are African refugees arriving in small boats, so it can’t be Argentina but has to be Spain. The use of Euros also points towards Spain.