Beautifully composed black-and-white lensing can’t save “Yesterday Wonder I Was” from a marked case of pretentio sophomorica. Gabriel Mariño’s follow-up to his debut “A Secret World” shares a similar interest in details, this time with an even more pronounced tactility, yet the way he imbues each scene as if it’s quivering with meaning, coupled with an insufferably affected overuse of the second movement of Schubert’s Piano Sonata D.959, turns this cerebral sci-fi derivative into a self-consciously arty exercise that wears its Tsai Ming-liang influences with more affectation than prudence. That didn’t stop Morelia’s jury from awarding it their best first or second film prize, together with the best actress nod, and festival programmers on the hunt for “edgy” fare will undoubtedly be calling.
One of the key problems is that Mariño decided not to bother with a script, improvising everything based on a 15-page story he wrote inspired by “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” That explains the sparsity of dialogue as well as the ellipses, presumably meant to be bridged by the Schubert repetitions, though the frequent return of those pregnant notes calls attention to an overall emptiness unconnected to the deliberate feeling of isolation the film seeks to address.
This isolation is undoubtedly the most interesting concept here, and Mariño’s rejigging of “Body Snatchers,” eliminating the horror element and making it a story of continuity through change, cleverly reworks the formula. Emilio (Rubén Cristiany) is an older man who talks to his plants and has a fondness for making matchstick figures. He appears to have something like Parkinson’s disease, but later on, once the storyline is clearer, we realize that his shakes presage an imminent change.
Shortly after, Ana (Sonia Franco, winner of Morelia’s actress prize) is seen curiously examining herself in the bathroom mirror. She too is surrounded by matchstick figures, and she also gravitates to the beauty salon where Luisa (Siouzana Melikian) cuts hair. Ana begins a romance with the diffident stylist, at one point admitting to a dream in which she took over peoples’ bodies and discarded them after she used them up. Then when Ana disappears and Pedro (Hoze Meléndez) enters Luisa’s life, it becomes clear — well, sort of — that Ana’s dream is in fact the reality.
The film tries very hard to wed metaphor to meaning, but given the overall airlessness of each scene, it’s difficult to feel much for the characters or their situation. Mariño toys with parallels between the people and their environment, so an extended shot of graffiti referring to the 2016 name change of Mexico City (it had been known in Mexico as Distrito Federal, but is now Ciudad de Mexico) is designed to underline aspects of continuity: The souls stay the same even if the name (and aspect) changes. It’s a nice idea, yet the lack of a cohesive script in addition to the film’s florid self-consciousness turns it into a mere stylistic exercise. And that’s not even mentioning the odd Yoda-like construction of the title.
Fortunately, DP Iván Hernández’s noteworthy sense of framing, and the quality of the black-and-white images, mean there’s always something interesting to look at even if the sequence of events remains uninspiring. Hands are of particular importance: on their own, resting on top of another, brushing hair, touching a chain-link fence. The sensory impact is heightened, yet are we meant to think that the sense of touch remains the same no matter the body? Can love transmigrate? The raw philosophical questions offer food for thought, but the film fails to capture why it compelling might be.