Border  Review: A Modern Folktale About Empathy
Border, directed by Ali Abbasi is a film of narrative surprises with an air of genre-defiance. It demands of its viewers’ patience and an eye to look beyond the grotesque, and into the subliminal. This film had been on my watch list for some time now. I’m not the one to miss out on a premise centered on the supernatural. The idea of a woman with other-worldly abilities who supposedly meets her match and is then taken on a journey of self-discovery piqued my interest. Hence, I tuned in.
Man, was I wrong? Subverting expectations, this movie hit me from nowhere. It is disgusting and a peak uncomfortable watch, sure. The weird sex scene had me more puzzled than retracted. But if you can bear with the gross scenery, which is presented quite relentlessly, it takes you to challenging places that merited its win at the Cannes festival (Un Certain Regard).
Tina, the protagonist, works as a customs officer at a Swedish airport. She is a short woman with repulsive features and a lightning scar, caught in a morose routine. Every day, she stands guard in a dead corridor, literally sniffling out passengers who have something off about them. We are made aware of what exactly when Tina singles them out and reveals the occasional smuggled liquor or, in one case, a pornographic storage card. It is done with an air-piercing snort to perfection; an absolute command over this supernatural prowess.
Tina has willingly withdrawn herself into the wilderness and lives in a remote cabin with Roland, a canine aficionado who is always on the look-out for the next competitive race for his beloved dogs. Tina just can’t be around them. It seems they know something about her that she doesn’t, or cares not to.
Cue Vore, a man who bears a physical and behavioral resemblance to Tina, in his grunts and unapologetic stares. Tina’s talent (shall we?) fails to pick out the guilt or the contraband on him as she makes him undergo several security checks which he doesn’t seem to mind. His confidence and demeanor are held in contrast to her resigned and willful acceptance of her life. She is captivated.
An adaptation of a story by John Lindqvist, Border combines elements of body-horror and mythic folklore (something I know little about, and good that I didn’t, it turns out) and its depiction in a current-world backdrop, with subplots on pedophilia and the biology of unfertilized troll eggs. But the major thematic underpinning here is Identity and Choices; how does Tina want to live her life? As a Troll or as a Human? Vore’s actions towards the end of the movie make it predictable for the audience, as Tina doesn’t want to hurt anyone. “Is it human to think that way?” she asks.
As the title suggests, Border not only stands for Tina’s physical place of work but also suggests a line of distinction between sympathy and inflicted suffering; the blue, closeted world of terrible humans and the green, earthly retreat of nature. Eve Melander plays Tina with a special brand of empathy and understanding, capturing the nuances quite brilliantly, even under heavy makeup. Perhaps the film requires the same kind of empathy from its viewers as the one Melander has towards her character, which in turn has it towards humans. After all, as the director himself mentioned in an interview with the Guardian, “She has this empathy towards humanity, and that’s really the fundamental difference. That’s what makes her more a human being than anything else.”