Esmeraldero or Emerald Cowboy is the supposedly true story of out of work Japanese American airplane mechanic Eishy Hayata who comes to Columbia with nothing in the seventies and rises to be the largest emerald broker in the world. The scattershot approach and the somewhat self serving storyline make this gritty and realistic film something less than it could have been.
Eishy Hayata is a young Japanese American who travels to Columbia in search of adventure in the seventies, and decides that he wants to be an emerald cowboy, or esmeraldero. Esmeralderos are emerald brokers, sometimes mine owners, speculators and salesmen. Emerald territory butts up against rebel territory, and the trade is very dangerous, full of cut throats and cheats, ready to kill a na´ve esmeraldero at the drop of a hat. Hayata is helped along at first by the lovely Susana, played by the actual daughter of Hayata, Patricia. Hayata soon leaves Susana behind, and starts a partnership with an American and a couple of Columbians.
We watch as Hayata learns the ropes, and scrambles his way to the top from poverty, using his native cunning, courage and sheer force of personality. In the first half of the film, Hayata is played by Luis Velasco who, though he only looks Japanese in the vaguest way, is quite a talented actor. This half of the film deals mostly with the hardscrabble life of the esmeralderos as they struggle to become successful, fall in love and out of love and deal with the violence and uncertainty of life in Columbia. This section ends with the death of two of Hayata's old friends and partners, as the result of an argument over a cock fight.
In the second half of the film, Hayata plays himself, which is a bit jarring as he looks nothing at all like Velasco. This half of the film portrays Hayata's life as a big time emerald broker, perhaps the largest in the world, and his struggles with nativist Columbian unions, trumped up charges from the government and attacks on his mines from rebels. The film is definitely less compelling in the second half, mostly because the self indulgent and vanity aspects are much more pronounced with Hayata playing himself. He is always leading the charge against the invading rebels, bravely refusing to engage in the illegal drug trade, standing front and center when confronting the violent union mob. Who's to say that any of these things are untrue, but by this account Hayata seems to have spent his entire life unswerving from his ideals of honor and integrity. When one considers that Hayata wrote, co-directed and starred in the film a few niggling suspicions cannot help but arise.
There are other problems with the film other than the hagiographic elements. Clocking in at around ninety minutes, there is too much story crammed into too little time. Hayata is certainly a fascinating person, and the story (even if it does seem to ignore anything negative about its subject) is compelling. The film feels more like a series of vignettes than a full biography, however. Characters drift in and out of the film, often with little effort or time spent to flesh them out. Esmeraldero could have easily been a two plus hour film, and the absence of that missing material is sorely felt. This is too bad, as the film has a gritty feel and generally good performances. It was filmed on location in Columbia, often in the actual places that the events portrayed took place.
There are a few problems with the DVD itself. The menu is in Spanish, which presents a few minor difficulties for us mono-linguists, but nothing terribly difficult. There are what appear to be two language track options listed, for Spanish and English. When watching the film, however, there appears to be no difference whatsoever between the two. The film includes spoken English, Spanish and some Japanese. Two subtitle selections are available, one for English and one that does nothing. These are not accessible from the DVD menu, but from the remote. They are only listed as "subtitle - other" on the on-screen display, so it is unclear what the non-working subtitle selection was intended to be.
These problems are quickly overcome, but are momentarily confusing. They detract little from enjoyment of the film. The flaws in the film itself detract enough from its good points to make it merely a good rental opportunity.
The video is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen. The quality is mediocre, but generally does the job. There are occasional dust specs or scratches visible on the image, and at times murkiness and shadows overwhelm the action. Colors are pale, but during daylight scenes the action is visible.
The sound is presented in Dolby 2 channel, and also does the job but is nothing special. Dialogue is audible without trouble. The English subtitles are easy to read, but there are a few rare problems with translation, such as rebels yelling "retrieve" instead of "retreat" when running away from a battle with Hayata's miners. Spanish and English language tracks are available on the DVD menu, but do not appear to be any different when watching the film.
There are quite a number of extras, some quite interesting, included on the disc. They are:
Comerciales De Television (2:23)
Four television spots for the film, which are relatively uninteresting.
US Previo (2:51)
The US preview for the film, billing it as an "action documentary". Fairly standard.
Clip De Promocion Americana (1:08)
Another preview highlighting the "real" aspects of the film
Prensa Electronica (3:35)
A short view of behind the scenes footage, discussing the fact that real people and locations were used, and detailing some of the hazards of filming in Columbia.
Diario En Video (30:18)
The video diary is the most substantial, and interesting, extra included on the disc. Narrated by co-director Andrew Molina, it shows a substantial amount of behind the scenes footage. Molina discusses difficulties of the shooting, overcoming rockslides, threats of violence from esmeralderos, dealing with rebel checkpoints, car accidents and riots. The American crew members, including Molina himself, apparently took on significant risk to film in the country, as Americans are frequent targets of kidnapping. All of the guns featured in the film were apparently real, and used for security when not filming. The producers used a lot of non-actors, including many people portraying themselves. In one scene, of a large fight between union members and Hayata's employees, most of the people playing Hayata's men were present at the actual event. The video diary goes a long way to explaining how the producers achieved the realistic, gritty feel of the film. This extra is interesting in its own right.
Escenas Eliminadas (6:06)
A few deleted scenes, mostly in Spanish with no subtitles. Some additional haggling over emeralds, of which there was plenty in the film, an extended scene of Hayata meeting his wife for the first time, and chumming around with his friends. Nothing special here.
Previews for other films from Indican: Pariah, Moonlight, El Inmigrante, Screen Door Jesus, Dead in the Water and Little Erin Merryweather.
Esmeraldero is an occasionally compelling, and more occasionally self serving, portrait of a fascinating man. It has good performances and an interesting story, but skips over too much too quickly. One can't help but feel that Hayata would have been better served allowing others to write, direct and star in a film that was more honest and unbiased about his admittedly compelling life. As it is, Esmeraldero strikes the viewer as an indulgent vanity project that is more interested in flattering its subject than accurately portraying him. Rent this one.