By Nicholas Vroman
Jorge Cuchí’s first feature film, 50 (or Two Whales Meet on the Beach) snagged a trifecta of awards at the 2021 Morelia International Film Festival – The Ojo Award for Best Mexican Feature Film along with Best Actress and Actor awards. A former advertising industry maven, Cuchí, unenthused by a future promoting products, turned to his first love, cinema, to create stories and engage in issues that had much more importance to him.
50 (or Two Whales meet on the Beach) follows two teenagers, Felix (José Antonio Toledano) and Elisa (Karla Coronado), who are engaged together playing a social media game, the Blue Whale Challenge. The challenge is to perform 50 tasks, each new one upping the ante on risk and moral implications. The final task is suicide.
Isolation and disaffection with family lives bind the two on their journey to their final goal. Cuchí smartly uses split screen to show Felix and Elisa in their separate yet together worlds. They coalesce with a genuine meeting in the real world. From there a true, if twisted, loving relationship builds between them, which culminates in murder, betrayal, reconciliation, and the ultimate meeting of these two whales on the beach.
Cuchí’s analysis of adolescent love affected by the pathology of social media is both tough and tender. These mixed-up teenagers recall the lovers on the run of classic film noir – think of Bowie and Keechi in They Live by Night – caught in the crosshairs of unforgiving world and life, finding a flicker of romance and connection, hurling toward their tragic destiny. 50 (or Two Whales meet on the Beach) brings that emotion and feeling to a contemporary story set in our interconnected and lonely world.
Desistfilm: What inspired you to make this film?
Jorge Cuchí: Teenagers! I was the father of one. I’m very worried about it. And then what really interested me also, besides the thing that I am a parent, was the fact that this phenomenon has this combination of two things about our times. Number one, teenage suicide. But then also this thing about the proliferation of games, of these viral challenges as in TikTok or whatever, however with something very different.
Mostly when you see these challenge games, they tend to dare you to do things, but not to kill yourself. In fact they tell you, you have to stay alive to win.
With this Blue Whale Challenge, they do the complete opposite. They make you play for 50 days, and to live intensely for 50 days, to have a double life for 50 days, and then to kill yourself. So that really interested me. I started investigating the game. I found the challenges. And when I saw one of the challenges, which was to have a meeting with another blue whale, that’s where it all came to my mind – that this was a great opportunity for someone who was the administrator of this game to meet a victim. And that’s what detonated this opportunity to make a love story of these two young people who meet doing the game.
They have the same goal. Let’s say they have what normal couples should have. They have the same project, and they decide to play together. That’s what predestinated the story.
Desistfilm: But concerning the Blue Whale Challenge, there is speculation that it’s a fiction.
Jorge Cuchí: It’s like an urban legend. In fact, if you look on the Internet, you will find all 50 challenges. I have heard a theory that what detonated this myth is that some kids who had killed themselves posted images of whales, because they attribute to the whales a suicide contract when they stray onto the beach. And then it’s also said that a kid from Russia claimed that he invented the game because he wanted to get rid of every kid.
Besides, if it’s a myth or not, I think that it just sparks the idea to think about it – to think about suicide, to think about kids, to think about the necessity to take care of them. It gave me a great opportunity to tell a very interesting story and I think it’s very relevant. If the game is real or not, we really don’t know.
Desistfilm: You created a strangely romantic story built around suicide and game-playing. It’s very nihilistic yet has a romantic feel to it. Can you talk about these contradictions.
Jorge Cuchí: Some people have asked me if I didn’t romanticize the whole situation of suicide. And my answer is always, “I can only talk from my intentions.” You receive the things that you receive. Everything is so subjective. What I’m trying to convey is not that I as an author want to romanticize things. I’m telling the audience that this problem about teenage suicide is even more dangerous because the kids romanticize the whole situation.
The element of love is brought by the characters. That’s what I’m saying. Teenagers feel a lot. When they fall in love, they REALLY fall in love. When they hate, they REALLY hate. Everything is romanticized. And when they make this decision that they have to kill themselves, it’s very difficult to deviate from there. It’s our task, as adults, to save them because they will not do it. The element that they are living a love story, that makes it even more difficult, because that makes it even stronger.
Like I told you before. They have a common project. We’re going to love each other. We want to go together someplace else because we are not happy here. There must be something after death so we can go there, be together and be happy. People who commit suicide or make that decision, it’s not that they don’t like life, it’s not that they don’t like to breathe, the thing is: they don’t feel happy here. They are just so sad, and they think they cannot find happiness in this world, so maybe there’s another world where they can find it. It’s like a fantasy that maybe there’s a future.
Remember the images I have on the beach? First of all, I was thinking of the imagery of the whales. There’s this common idea that people who commit suicide don’t have a place to go. And I wanted to give them a place to go.
So it’s like this double thing. I wanted just to illustrate that they have a project. That they have a goal. It’s not that they want to disappear. They want to reappear somewhere else together.
Desistfilm: Could you tell me about your approach to storytelling?
Jorge Cuchí: Because of my preferences as an audience, I really tend to like American films. Film noirs, I like them very much. I like plot-driven things. Even when talking about suicide, very serious things – and trying to be realistic at the same time – I like to build a story that escalates. And I want it to be attractive. And I want you to be emotionally engaged, involved. And to be interested in the story itself. I’m not doing a psychology treaty. I’m not doing documentary. I am building a story. And through that story, I’m talking about very serious subjects. But I’m also very aware that I’m telling a story and I want you to be really, really hooked on the story. So that’s why I have this structure. And the game itself gave me the opportunity to build it that way. It escalates naturally. Challenge number 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… It escalates naturally, so it was very, like, noble with me there, I mean the game itself, because it gave me the possibility to tell a story that can be very engaging, emotionally impactful, and grows every step of the way.
I really like subjects that can be attractive to mass audiences and give them all the insight I can put into them, in order to address these subjects in a more intelligent way than what you can see in mainstream movies, trying things in terms of cinematic language that I have learned watching independent films and the way they tell stories. I really like popular subjects, but to make them more personal.
Desistfilm: And any comments or feelings about social media and its effect on kids?
I think social media has a lot of positive things. I really like social media. I think it has a lot of positive things as you can know different people, how they think. You can have your eyes everywhere in the world. But at the same time, it emphasizes a lot of things that I really don’t like. Because, if you are a very depressed or sad individual you tend to get connected in the world with people like yourself. And what happens, you can emphasize the positive and you can also amplify the negative. It’s very dangerous that kids can get in touch with people who will never help them to get out of their depression and maybe make it even deeper. And that’s a very big problem. When I was a kid, if a friend was bullied in school he could go home and find a safe haven. Now social media makes it impossible for him.
Cuchí has just wrapped filming of his new film Un Actor Malo (Bad Actor). Inspired by an interview with Maria Schneider about her harrowing experience working with Bernardo Bertolucci and Marlon Brando during the filming of Last Tango in Paris, he wrote a story about a film company making a movie, during which the lead actress accuses the lead actor of sexual abuse.