Director: Ali Abassi
Stars: Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Sten Ljunggren
Human beings are not synchronous with nature. We run rough-shot over it, we destroy it, or augment it, building machines, paving over it, slicing it up with our tribalism, dividing continents into nations via arbitrarily lines. Our sense of entitlement and ownership contorts nature’s simplicity. In short, we’re a scourge.
I’m a little late to Ali Abassi’s Border, Sweden’s entry for consideration at the Oscars this year, already available on bluray and DVD here in the UK. But catching it on MUBI stopped me in my tracks. Based on a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist – the mind behind Let The Right One In – and brought to the screen with assistance from Isabella Eklof (Holiday), the film holds a mirror up to the limitations in people and, like Lindgvist’s breakthrough vampire tale, suggests greater ‘humanity’ in those closer in nature to beasts.
Eva Melander plays Tina, beleaguered with a ‘chromosome flaw’ which means that her features don’t conform to standard notions of beauty. Her teeth are sharp, her forehead protrudes in a manner that suggests neanderthal man. She works as a customs officer where she displays an uncanny sensitivity to fear, guilt and anger. She can smell out those who are hiding something. Between this and a scar on her lower back that suggests the removal of a prehensile tail, there’s something animalistic about her which sets her apart. Yet she is, for want of a better word, domesticated.
During her work she meets and grows increasingly intrigued by a stranger who shares these qualities. This traveller, Yore (Eero Milonoff), is more in touch with his feral inclinations. With a shared sense of otherness, the two are inexorably drawn to one another. In the process, Tina learns more about her true nature, as Yore encourages her to discover her heritage.
The human sides of Tina and Yore are just as preoccupying as their more beastly exteriors (great make-up and prosthetic work). While they may belong to another species altogether, both have taken on human characteristics in order to coexist in ‘our’ world. For Tina this means compassion and empathy, sensitivity and longing. For Yore, however, this has meant embracing concepts like vengeance and resentment.
There are more borders here than the ones protected by customs officers. Abassi pries into human values, personal identity and our capacity to do harm. During her work, Tina aids the police in uncovering a couple involved in the creation and dissemination of child pornography, abusing their own daughter for profit. Meanwhile, in order to stave off loneliness, Tina lives with a man named Roland (Jörgen Thorsson), who seems like little more than a deadbeat taking advantage of her hospitality. Frequently, the human elements of Abassi’s film are the true savages. The psychology of the story is entirely misanthropic. Yore describes humanity as a disease, and this seems to be an authorial statement. What quantifies genuine virtue is up for dispute.
As with Let The Right One In, this is also a tale of companionship; of two outsiders finding strength in one another; the lonely in search of understanding and respite. Imprisoned as we all are in our own skin, there is something keenly identifiable in this craving. So Border is also a love story, of a kind. Abassi’s film straddles genre borders.
Understanding that Tina and Yore are biologically separate from human is important, because otherwise this film could stray into some dangerous territory. It’d be all too easy to mistake the intentions here and take umbrage. It could be read as equating those with physical deformities or disfiguring medical conditions with animals. But to do so would miss the point entirely. From the perspective of Border and its creators, such a reading would be a compliment and not a disservice.
“I don’t see the point of evil,” Tina says with simple elegance, then asks, “Is it human to think that way?” Border poses tricky questions about the better angels in our nature and their true origins. Are these perhaps the qualities that we inherit through evolution, as opposed to the tendencies we more often deem savage…? Which direction are we really heading in? For more of the same, investigate Ivan I. Tverdovsky’s equally engaging Zoology.