Juan Carlos Torrico’s rather strange film Asia, el culo del mundo is not, despite its title (“Asia, Asshole of the World”), some kind of Orientalist diatribe. Rather it’s more of a Peruvian version of Paris, Texas. For it turns out that somewhere in the dusty desert about 100km south of Lima is a Godforsaken place that rejoices in the name of “Asia.”
And it’s in Asia that the movie’s protagonists end up when their car breaks down in the midst of an ill-advised short cut. The motley retinue of maroons comprises: Manuel, a young ne’er-do-well who is fleeing south to escape some unspecified trouble in Lima that has left him with a bullet wound in his arm; his (step)father Fortunato, a retired soldier who still sees and describes the world through military terminology and outdated nationalist rhetoric; and Beatriz, a young woman along for the ride who has dreamed of a place called Asia where there might be ancient ruins and a staircase to heaven.
So Beatriz at least is content enough with the trio’s plight, as she has found literally herself in the place of her dreams. She soon embarks on the construction of a giant geometrical design in the desert ground, something like a set of Nazca lines to attract passing deities. Fortunato falls in with the plan, happy to have some kind of mission. And Manuel perks up from his initial gloom and frustration as he’s gradually attracted to the sole occupant of this desolate waste, a young woman by the name of Dora who has a penchant for transparent blouses and mudbaths in a nearby lake.
Trouble is brewing, however, as it turns out that Dora does not live here alone: her partner Santiago is due back at any moment, and Manuel recognizes from a discarded uniform that the master of the house must be a cop or an ex-cop. But it’s worse than Manuel can imagine. For Santiago proves to be a somewhat crazed individual, prone to violent rages, loud harangues, cutting the tails off goats and covering himself in their blood. He’s brought his beloved here to Asia in order to keep her safe from prying eyes or potential competitors. Alas, Manuel’s intervention has therefore spoilt his vision of rural tranquility, and in recompense Santiago covers his torso with dark black mud, ties his rival to a tree in the middle of nowhere, starts inflicting on him something like a death from a thousand cuts, while all the time lecturing him on fatherhood and the perils of military service.
For in some strange way, this is actually a film about the Sendero war, and war in general. Santiago is in fact an ex-Sinchi, a member of one of the feared battalions who were on the front line of the war against the Maoist insurgency. However, he was accused (he tells Manuel) of violations of human rights, even though all he ever did was for the fatherland and against terrorism, and was left out to dry by the service. This (alongside, it should be added, various other misfortunes such as the loss of his father and the fact that he’s unable to have children) is what seems to have turned his mind.
But in his crazed manner, Santiago is also a good sport. It’s all part of the code of machismo that he’s busy teaching his Limeñan adversary, whom he constantly calls “gringo.” So not only does he untie Manuel, he also passes him his knife, daring him to use it. Which the young man duly does, and so that’s the end of Santiago.
Meanwhile, no deities see fit to drop in on Beatriz’s ancient-style landing strip, though right at the end Fortunato comes to believe that the group are under attack, orders a military reveille, and then falls down dead in mid-charge against his imaginary adversaries. He’s then buried in the precincts of some nearby ruins. But the ending is happy in any case: we discover that the entire film has been narrated by Fortunato himself from his new position as sentinel guarding the gateway between life and death. And Manuel is left with two women to himself, one of whom he has managed successfully to impregnate.
It really would be hard to understate the strangeness of this movie, but its import is clear enough. Ravaged by war, Peru is now a desert in which only madmen and nostalgics thrive. The drive to recover ancient traditions may not bring back the powers of old, but it seems to be a step in the right direction towards accommodating oneself to life in this barren and deceptive outpost in the South. Whether we should really take heart in this message, I’m not so sure. Still less as to how much we should applaud this grandiose but ultimate failed attempt to lodge avant-garde theatrics within a national cinematic tradition whose forte has been either social realism or urban comedy. But oddly I find myself glad that they tried.
YouTube Link: brief cellphone footage from contemporary Asia, Peru. Mildly diverting for its final dialogue.