NYU-trained Chilean director Andres Wood, whose 1997 debut “Football Stories” represented an impressive calling card, returns with “Loco Fever,” a colorful, amusingly observed tale of love, lust, greed and free-trade chaos, handsomely shot in knockout locations on the southern coast of Patagonia. While the film suffers mildly from an unfocused midsection, its original setup, gentle but bittersweet humor and engaging gallery of characters make this a refreshing change from the predominantly political Chilean cinema that normally travels the fest circuit. Lively TV sales should follow.
The “loco” of the title is an endangered species of edible shellfish with aphrodisiac powers, worth its weight in gold in Japan. When Chilean authorities briefly lift a ban on fishing for the high-priced delicacy, a fever of gold-rush proportions grips Puerto Gala, an isolated, tiny coastal community.
Divers, fishermen, a busload of traveling prostitutes and assorted wheeler-dealers all converge on the village looking for a fast buck, sending the entire population loco.
In addition to hunger for money, the film’s other principal theme is the shifting seasons of love. This is explored through the hesitantly rekindled romance between local bar owner Sonia (Loreto Moya) and former diver Canuto (Emilio Bardi), back in town after a seven-year absence and posing as the frontman for a bogus Japanese entrepreneur in order to con the entire village.
Love of a more fresh and hopeful nature blossoms between Canuto’s old friend Jorge (Luis Dubo) and waitress Nelly (Tamara Acosta), only to wither tragically as greed knocks the villagers’ world off-kilter.
Main weakness in the script by Wood, Rene Arcos and Gilberto Villarroel is the uncertain development of these parallel love stories, failing to give the film a solid narrative heart and prompting a loss of energy in the central reels. But Wood’s assured employment of the spirited ensemble of well-played characters within a vividly drawn, microcosmic world (at times recalling vintage Robert Altman) keeps the earthy human comedy enjoyable.
Plenty of amusing clashes are provided by the quarrelsome pocket factions within the community. Perhaps the most captivating device is the echoing of the two doomed central romances through the florid melodrama of a nightly radio soap left over from another time. Soap, called “Eternal Love,” is performed by the village priest (Luis Margani) and his passionately loyal assistant (Carmen Barros), who vainly strive to maintain moral order.
Made for well under $1 million, the sharp production looks considerably richer, even including aerial and underwater photography. The animated percussion score and Latin rhythms by Carlos Cabezas, Diego Las Heras and Jeanette Pualuan capture the right unruly spirit.