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  • Trans/Bolero/Drag/Migration: Music, Cultural Translation, and Diasporic Puerto Rican Theatricalities
  • Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes (bio)

Bolero is a music of seduction. Wong Kar-wai knows it well, and that is why boleros accompany Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung extradiegetically as they become desperate lovers in Wong’s In the Mood for Love (2000), a nostalgic film set in 1960s Hong Kong and interlaced with classic Latin American songs, interpreted by none other than Nat King Cole in a heavily accented Spanish. A movie for the new millennium, marked by its postmodern vanguardist style, but at the same time profoundly conservative, as Stephen Teo (2001) points out in relation to its traditional melodramatic romantic plot; a film in Cantonese and Shanghainese, with a soundtrack performed by an African American heartthrob well known for conquering many hearts, here and there.1

Wong’s attraction to all things Latin American is well known. Earlier, in his deceivingly titled 1997 film Happy Together, the director had presented Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung as two melancholy gay male Hong Kong expatriates in Buenos Aires whose amorous travails anticipate those of In the Mood for Love. Among the first images in Happy Together is a stunning aerial shot of the imposing Iguazú waterfalls, accompanied by the music of the Brazilian Caetano Veloso, singing not in Portuguese, but in Spanish, as he does in his album Fina estampa. This linguistic gesture is reproduced by the Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar—a faithful lover of the bolero and of Latin American songs—in Talk to Her, of 2002, where we see a Spanish lady bullfighter and her male Argentinean reporter friend listening to Caetano, who sings “Cucurrucucú Paloma” in Spanish before their eyes. It is noticeable that it is the same huapango in the Spanish film as that in Wong’s movie—a song by the Zacatecan composer Tomás Méndez that was immortalized by the great Lola Beltrán. But here it is the androgynous Caetano, who years before had openly declared his attraction to a young, sun-drenched, male Bahian surfer in his song “O leãozinho” (The Little Lion), the same Brazilian singer whose large musical production is marked by ambiguity and sexual/gender [End Page 190] games, as César Braga-Pinto (2002) has observed; the same Caetano who sang in English, with Lila Downs, in Julie Taymor’s 2002 film Frida, in which the grande dame of female masculine androgyny Chavela Vargas also appeared.2 In “Cucurrucucú,” Caetano sings of a lover’s lament for his absent love, crying, suffering, singing, moaning, passing through hunger, and finally dying of “mortal passion,” after which his soul turns into a bird—love and death, tied together by the musical form.

Accompanied by Caetano and the tango, the homosexual lovers of Happy Together reconstruct their lives as fleeting immigrants in Argentina and become local in their passion for fútbol (soccer), mate (the herbal infusion), and beef, although, as Francine Masiello points out, the process is marked by the disjunctures experienced by Asian migrant workers, suffering from linguistic alienation and economic poverty, in the Southern Cone (2001, 141–43). The homoerotic passion itself is mediated by the dance in which the protagonists wordlessly engage in the privacy of their small rented room: a dance similar to that of Salma Hayek (in the character of Frida) and Ashley Judd (playing Tina Modotti) in a scene from Frida in which the two women dance while Lila Downs sings “Alcoba Azul,” with the difference that in the latter, their public watches and desires them in silence.

This musical passion is no coincidence: the tango, in many erotic and sentimental ways, is the Buenos Airean equivalent of the Mexican-Caribbean bolero, of the Portuguese fado, of the Southern blues, and of many other genres producing explicit songs of passion, as Iris Zavala (2000) suggests in El bolero: Historia de un amor. All these twentieth-century musical forms, clear markers of modernity (and of its inherent contradictions), are intercrossed with a profound desire for the impossible, for the perfect love: the longing for the painful recognition of that which is beyond reach. The bolero is the music...


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pp. 190-209
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