Eva Longoria & Oscar Nunez in the movie "Without Men." (Maya Film Festival )
When director Gabriela Tagliavini was casting her latest film, "Without Men," starring Eva Longoria, Christian Slater and Kate del Castillo, she knew it was crucial to get the sexual chemistry right.
Not between Longoria's character, an ordinary woman who becomes the "mayor" of a Latin American mountain village where all the males have been forced to join a guerrilla army, and Slater's character, a zealous gringo journalist.
In the English-language comic fable, adapted from Colombian writer James Canon's novel "Tales From the Town of Widows," the key erotic connection involves Longoria and Del Castillo, cast as a seductive interloper who turns up in the suddenly all-female pueblo, as sleek and mysterious as Clint Eastwood strolling into a spaghetti western.
"Kate is a woman that is fierce, she likes a challenge," Tagliavini said of the Mexican star of TV ("Weeds," "La Reina del Sur") and movies ("Under the Same Moon"). "Kate, in one of our [media] Q&As, said, 'I kiss a lot of ugly guys, so I don't see what the fuss is about over kissing a woman.'"
"Without Men" hails from the female-friendly genre of magical-libidinal-realism that begat "Like Water for Chocolate" and "The House of the Spirits." Tagliavini thinks her film's romantic interludes between Del Castillo and Longoria, the petite Mexican American star of TV's "Desperate Housewives," will concentrate the minds of female and male viewers alike, starting at Friday night's U.S. premiere as part of the Maya Indie Film Series at the Laemmle Sunset 5.
Yet, "Without Men," like Tagliavini's breakout hit, the Mexico City-set romantic comedy "Ladies' Night" (2003), aspires to be more than simply a chick flick with a Spanish accent. In positing a girls-only utopian community, the film pokes fun (mostly gently) at male machismo, political ideology and the moral strictures of the Roman Catholic Church.
And although its same-sex erotic subplot likely won't cause a stir in laid-back Los Angeles, it may play slightly differently in Latin America, Tagliavini acknowledged. At one Mexico City test-screening, some audience members who praised the movie also expressed discomfort at its sexual politics.
"In their hearts they loved it. In their minds they were a little afraid," said the Argentine-born director.
Uniting the cinematic sensibilities of diverse audiences has been a goal of the small but ambitious Maya Indie series.
Now in its third year, the series is an offshoot of Maya Entertainment, a multi-platform content and distribution company and theater chain led by movie producer Moctesuma Esparza ("Selena," "Gettysburg," "The Milagro Beanfield War") and Jeff Valdez. After opening in L.A. and New York, the series will move on to San Diego, San Antonio and other cities.
While previous editions have featured a number of Spanish-language films, this year's is English-dominant. "We would've loved to have had a couple of good Spanish-language films," Esparza said. However, he added, "The Los Angeles reality is a diverse, multicultural reality."
The other films in this year's series, which runs through Aug. 4, include "All She Can," about a small-town Texas girl's bid to become a champion power-lifter; "Blue Eyes," a drama that pairs a death-haunted U.S. immigration officer with a young Brazilian woman; "DiDi Hollywood," which charts a young woman's fame-seeking odyssey; and "Forged," a story of Rust Belt redemption.
Another entry, "Where the Road Meets the Sun," a well-acted, street-poetic fusion of action-thriller, immigrant drama and unconventional buddy movie, written and directed by Yong Mun Chee, reflects the culturally scrambled metropolis that Maya aims to serve.
Two parallel friendships track through that film, which takes place in and around the Los Feliz-Koreatown-Silver Lake area where Yong, a USC film school alum, makes her home. In one, a Japanese hitman struggling with violent flashbacks meets up with Blake, a hotel desk clerk battling memories of a marriage-wrecking affair. In the other, Julio, an illegal immigrant worker, forms an unlikely bond with Guy, a charming ne'er-do-well Brit. The cast includes Will Yun Lee ("Die Another Day") and Eric Mabius ("Resident Evil").
"It's the perspective of an outsider coming to Los Angeles," said Yong, who was raised in Singapore.
In the same way that L.A. scrambles ethnicity and identity, "Where the Road Meets the Sun" fuses various genre and stylistic elements together in a way that defies expectations. Yong would like to see more films being made with an artistic freedom that mirrors her adopted city's rich stew of languages, cultures and people.
"If I'm telling an L.A. story, it doesn't matter what genre it is," she said. "I think that [mix] should be reflected in the film, but it doesn't have to be a story about immigrants. It could be a horror movie or a romantic comedy."