The opening scenes of “Kokoloko” require a context that Gerardo Naranjo intriguingly holds back for a bit, but for fans of the filmmaker, they create a context all their own. It’s been nearly a decade since the director became an international sensation with “Miss Bala,” in which the aesthetic adventurousness and narrative mischief of his earlier films “I’m Gonna Explode” and “Drama/Mex” electrified the story of an unlikely drug mule, the kind of innovative filmmaking in a tried-and-true genre that make studios think there could be another Christopher Nolan. However, more often than not, they end up with Nicolas Winding Refn (“Drive”) or Mateo Garrone (“Gomorrah”), massively talented eccentrics whose instincts occasionally overlap with the demands of commercial cinema but remain committed to their muse wherever it goes. Given that “Vienna and the Fantomes,” Naranjo’s Dakota Fanning-led musical drama shot in 2015, currently exists only as a trailer, and the director who appeared intent on not repeating himself has helmed a handful of TV episodes of shows in the vein of “Miss Bala,” the scratchy and jumbled scenes of the Oaxacan coast that introduce his latest make it seem like it isn’t only lovers Mundo (Noé Hernández) and Marisol (Alejandra Herrera) are the only ones taking in the fresh air.
In many ways, “Kokoloko” splits the difference between what the world wanted from Naranjo in the wake of “Miss Bala” and what he likely wanted for himself, returning to the world of violence as he embeds with a group of guerrillas protecting their community from the feds, but more invested in the sensual romantic thriller that unfolds as Mundo and Marisol are driven apart by her cousin Mauro (Eduardo Mendizábal). Neither man is thinking in the best interests of Marisol, but she’s actually infatuated with Mundo in the unhealthy way a lovestruck teen can be, only mildly concerned when he springs a machine gun on her after making love as a joke and attaching life-or-death stakes to when he decides to text her back. That becomes an increasing rarity when Mauro finds a way to have him exiled from the guerrillas and Mundo looks to claw back into the fold, though whether either should have a place in Marisol’s life remains an open question.
The narrative is slight and the production appears scrappy, but in the case of “Kokoloko,” the less there is to work with, the more Naranjo’s raw talent shines through, keeping things interesting throughout. After subversively using the widest anamorphic lenses possible to show the claustrophobic experience of living inside Mexico’s drug war in “Miss Bala,” the filmmaker employs the film’s presentation as an extension of Marisol’s experience, the inherent haziness of celluloid kicking up as she enters increasingly ambiguous territory in her relationship with Mundo and the format’s quirks express everything from complete unconsciousness to warm memories. Although Hernández and Herrera don’t make an entirely convincing couple in their limited time together, or at least enough to warrant Marisol’s obsession on its own, even with the presence of explicit sex scenes, her longing is palpable in the way “Kokoloko” is structured, with the camera bringing out the soul in Herrera’s subtle, unaffected performance and the film’s canny editing making connections that exist only in the abstract for its lead.
If it weren’t for the cell phones or Britney Spears T-shirt that adorns Marisol at one point, “Kokoloko” would seem timeless and yet for Naranjo, it’s a brilliant opportunity to turn back the clock, taking risks like someone without the experience to second-guess themselves, but with the technique gained over the years to make them pay off. While flashbacks to the beach are there to remind Mundo and Marisol of the purity that their relationship once had, they come to serve as a moving reflection of a gifted filmmaker returning to his roots, reenergized and seeing things clearly once more.