BORDER, directed by Ali Abbasi, is a peculiar watch which mixes genres and subverts audience expectations. Going on title alone, you would be forgiven if you expected this film to be about the borders between nations. While Tina does work at border patrol, the concept of border explored in the film is the space inhabited by outsiders, the space between what is human and that which is not.
Early on the film establishes that Tina has a unique sense of smell which allows her to detect contraband and also the feelings of those passing through border patrol, such as guilt and shame. She identifies a seemingly innocuous looking man who is carrying a memory card with child pornography on it. Her sharp animal-like senses make her excellent at her job, but also mark her as an “outsider”.
Her appearance also signals that Tina is “other”: she has a protruding chin, small eyes and waxy skin. The make-up used on actress Eva Melander is expertly fashioned and despite the arduous application process, Melander’s emotive subtleties give warmth to a film that otherwise might feel cold.
One day at work, Tina’s heightened senses pull her towards an individual who looks very similar to herself (and also wears a similar mask of prosthetic make-up). We are introduced to Vore (Eero Milonoff), a puzzling character who Tina and the audience are equally intrigued by. Although an audience may feel uncomfortable with Vore and question his intentions, Tina begins a romantic relationship with him after inviting him to stay at her cabin in the woods.
As Tina and Vore’s relationship evolves into something romantic, built upon their shared experience, the film takes a turn. BORDER becomes more fantastical in genre, moving from previous indicators which would expect this film to be a more typical thriller or Scandi noir crime drama.
The rest of BORDER confronts the audience with topics such as intersexuality and child rape. It becomes even darker, and the audience has to suspend their belief to follow the narrative trajectory.
The mixing of genres – between thriller and fantasy, social realism and mythology – is disconcerting, completely changing where you originally expected the film to go. While sometimes this can be an enjoyable twist for an audience, in BORDER, it is quite jarring. What could have been a nuanced exploration of the duality of borders and those who fit within society’s expected norms, becomes slightly lost in the turn to fantasy which is firmly established by the end.
The film overall is an enjoyable watch if you do not question the sharp turn into the fantasy genre. The pace of the film is too slow at points, but BORDER is saved by the performance from Melander: one full of subtle nuances despite the layers of prosthetics. Moments where she interacts with nature and animals reminds us that although she might not be fully human, she possesses more humanity than most.