Opening with a succession of family photos depicting a young man’s transition to young woman, Carmin Tropical is a meditative, slow-burn murder mystery set in south east Mexico’s Juchitan, starring José Pecina as Mabel, a muxe (third gender) woman returning to her hometown following her friend Dani’s murder.
There’s something in the sun-dappled and bittersweet storytelling of director Rigoberto Pérezcano’s second feature, especially its early scenes. From its bleary, glitter-soaked recollections of club singing and bar room beauty pageants to the hypnotic long shots of Mabel travelling through rural Mexico – there’s a beauty to the considered camera work of cinematographer Alejandro Cantu and a simplistic resolve in Pecina’s captivating performance.
Later that immediately arresting quality all but evaporates and a reliance on flashbacks sees the film’s weight quickly ebb away in favour of doleful grief-stricken voiceover and a funereal tone that holds the narrative reins too tightly. A certain sobriety is understandable given a plotline that pivots around a transphobic murder, but the film’s laboured contemplations on mortality often work to scupper its otherwise interesting noirish potential – potential that so many elements of Carmin Tropical’s setup seem to promise but rarely deliver upon.
Mabel’s love affair with soft-spoken taxi driver Modesto (Luis Alberti) as she investigates Dani’s murder drives the narrative divertingly forward. So do her interactions with muxe friends at a local gay bar. Although any wider commentary on muxe and machismo culture in Mexico eludes, there’s a vérité candour and authenticity to the cast’s interactions.
Carmin Tropical’s idiosyncratic premise might prick your ears but the characters are cipheric and ultimately, like the songs Mabel sings (think Julie London at her saddest) the story is the stuff of tragic ballad, full of lost love, betrayal, and guilt. The ending may be killer, and highlights the danger trans men and women too often face, but you might find yourself wishing they had turned the narrative screws a little tighter or even dared to buck more conventional storytelling trends altogether by just singing a different tune.
Words by Cormac O’Brien
Carmin Tropical screens at the BFI Flare London LGBT Film Festival on the 24th and 25th March.