The hairstyles alone drag us instantly to the 80s. Likewise the cheesy advertising jingles dreamed up by adman Rene Saavedra (Bernal). He's mesmerised by the newest household gimmick, a microwave oven (in one scene he and his young son entertain themselves by watching an apple bake).
But the 80s in Chile were about more than bad hair. In a 1988 referendum, military dictator Augusto Pinochet, who had ruled the country since a US-sponsored coup in 1973, offered Chileans a choice: to vote "yes" or "no" to the extension of his term in power for a further 10 years.
The popular wisdom is that the 1987 visit of Pope John Paul II was instrumental in persuading Pinochet, whose regime clandestinely executed more than 3000 people and systematically tortured about 10 times that number, to initiate a return to democracy. But Larrain eschews a solemn recap of the historical record, which the films of Patricio Guzman have so magisterially and definitively surveyed, in favour of a smarter approach: what he's come up with is equal parts satire, thriller, documentary and black comedy.
His bold, even inspired, stylistic decision was to film on U-matic videotape (the state of the art in the days of VHS). Audiences raised in the digital era may flinch at the grainy texture and flares of light but the picture quality allows a seamless merger between archival and new footage, while subliminally evoking the imagery of CCTV surveillance.
No is driven by manifold ironies: Bernal's Saavedra is an advertising man who takes on the campaign to urge the "No" vote in the plebiscite. This is no easy task. His estranged ex, an anti-junta hardliner, regards even participating in the vote as an act of capitulation; his boss is the architect of the "Yes" campaign.
Saavedra, who skateboards to work and plays with model trains, reckons alegria (happiness) is easier to sell than democracy and that's the product he's packaging. He knows that to win the vote he must persuade his client to turn away from the grisly truths of the past in favour of the promise of a rosy future (the campaign's logo is a rainbow and its running gag a clown). The morass of contradictions into which that leads him and us makes for a sobering watch.
It's a fable for our times, set in another age. Larrain shows that he's alive to the most terrible paradox of political life: for the truth to triumph, a lot of little lies must be told.
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers
Director: Pablo Larrain
Running time: 116 mins
Rating: M (violence, offensive language). In Spanish with English subtitles
Verdict: Perfect blend of bleak satire and political thriller