Thursday, November 22, 2018

film review: Border (Gräns)

Directed by: Ali Abbasi
Written by:  Ali Abbasi, Isabella Eklöf and John Ajvide Lindqvist (based on a short story by Lindqvist)

ChinoKino score: B+

Review by Allan Tong

What the hell did I just watch?

Border plays like an art-house European drama but veers into sci-fi, noir and even romance. At times, it unwinds drily, while at others, Border mesmerizes. Throughout, it is unsettling.

Border follows Tina (Eva Melander) as a lonely, cold customs agent. Tina looks part-animal with a big forehead, fang-like teeth, heavy body hair and scars galore. She looks repulsive, and has drawn scorn all her life, from schoolyard bullies to adults who openly call her an "ugly bitch." Naturally, she has developed a thick emotional shell. She isn't warm. She's guarded, and hard to know--and like. Meanwhile, her father (Jörgen Thorsson ) is falling into dementia while her boyfriend (Sten Ljunggren ) leeches off her in a loveless relationship.

At least Tina is amazing at her job. Like a bloodhound, Tina as customs officer can literally smell shame and guilt in travelers. Life changes when she sniffs out a mysterious fellow from Finland,  Vore (Eero Milonoff). Vore looks and acts as animalistic as Tina. (He eats live maggots.) They hit it off. Tina rents him a shed on her property.

[spoiler alert] Vore reveals a dark secret about their people, how humans experimented on and tortured their kind. Humans destroy, says Vore from the depths of his cold, vengeful heart. Vore's revelation liberates Tina from her deadbeat boyfriend and her own father as she seeks the truth about her family. This let's her embraces who she is. There is an unexpected maternal twist to this story which works, throwing light on an otherwise bleak film.

Melander and Milonoff deliver stellar performances, aided by an astonishing make-up job. Milonoff is pure darkness as Vore, who gets entangled in a pedophilia ring because he wants humans to suffer. Melander, though, carries the film as she makes her beastly Tina more kind, sympathetic and, well, human, than the actual humans in her life. The two characters represent the yin/yang of nature nature: Tina as kind and nurturing; Vore as vindictive and cruel.

At times, Border is art-house slow and relentlessly sullen. Then, just as suddenly, a twist from left field rivets your attention. This film is not to everyone's taste, but offers a rewarding journey to the dark side of human nature.

Border opens Nov. 23 in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, then throughout the fall in other cities.

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