Abbasi’s matter-of-fact approach to the film’s fantastical elements serves a dual purpose. It makes easier the accepting of this world, in which a humanoid creature like Tina can live as a human, but it also speaks to her assimilation into it. She spends time on her couch with dirtbag boyfriend, but she’s forced to ignore the odd fact that his dogs seem especially scared of her. She shops at the grocery store just like anyone else, but she works overtime to ignore the concerned stares of the old women who shop there too. (The film also circumvents the Bright problem of an alternate history with unchanged specifics by simply tweaking existing forms of oppression and disinformation; Tina doesn’t know where she came from because the violent, bigoted society we live in willed it so)

Abbasi, an Iranian-born Swede, no doubt has a unique perspective on outsidership in Europe. The world’s current migrant crises often have Islamophobic hues, but by placing Tina in the unique position of both oppressor and oppressed, Abbasi circumvents any one-to-one racial comparisons that might prove to be issues in and of themselves. While he treats “race” as Tolkein did, a set of biological differences that give rise to sociological norms, Tina and Vore are still played by Caucasian actors, wherein most Western fantasy films would’ve made them darker in appearance. The metaphor, or rather metaphors, still exist no doubt; Tina is “ugly” by the same standards that deem white Europeans beautiful, and it’s in the rediscovery of an entirely different set of norms that she’s able to accept her value. On the other hand, the more indirect metaphors, like the film’s transgender subtext, prove to be much thornier.

It’s interesting to see a film that presents an alternate culture wherein gender norms don’t fit rigid boxes as they do in most human societies — physically, Vore is able to get pregnant — though this apparent mis-alignment of genitalia and outward presentation exists as a byproduct of Tina and Vore (and whatever they are) being implicitly non-human, and being labelled from a human perspective. Perhaps calling Border a transgender text is a misnomer; while The Matrix conveys the unspoken subtleties of gender dysphoria (“You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad”), Border’s characters deal with physical un-belonging in more overt ways (they could be seen as Intersex, but this too requires a human view on something otherworldly) though none of these bodily issues ever correlate to anything resembling transgender experience. That Vore and Tina simply “are” is a comforting thought — detached from real-world specifics, their self-acceptance is beautiful — but their physical existence is explicitly rooted in transgender and intersex human experiences that the film seems to arrive at by accident.

The metaphor itself being somewhat borderless in a film so grounded in real-world oppression becomes shaky at this juncture. Whether by intent or happenstance, the specifics of Border end up feeling like mirror-versions of real-world racial and LGBTQ issues. But to what degree is a fantasy story, even one ostensibly “grounded” in contemporary identity politics, beholden to real-world specifics?

Borders movie

Is it a problem that Vore is played by a cisgender man? If he’s meant to be a transgender character, certainly; Abbasi doesn’t seem to think so, but an approach that chooses gender and sexuality as its partial focus, trades in its visual and spoken language, and then proceeds to blur its own metaphor makes this a complicated question, especially when Vore uses specific elements of his biological function in ways one might consider monstrous (without getting into specifics, a more critical approach toward this element may have required a third “troll” character’s perspective, which would have made for an entirely different film). I’m willing to list Border alongside the dozens of other recent issues of casting cis actors as trans characters (Sacred Games, Rub & Tug, the list goes on) but ultimately, regardless of intent, this aspect of Border gets lost in the unending shuffle of barely-human transgender subtexts that, in 2018, ought to simply be transgender texts.

Does that make Border an ugly film? As it pertains to its muddled approach to gender, perhaps. It’s certainly beautiful for a whole host of other reasons; for one, it articulates minority experience (albeit a nebulous, mish-mash minority, if we consider “the metaphor”) in an indelibly soulful manner, presenting the discovery of one’s own history and future with the requisite balance of pride and dread. Fittingly, however, it speaks to the very nature of beauty and ugliness as matters of perspective, forces in constant flux that don’t necessarily cancel each other out. Tina’s discoveries about herself and those around her follow an almost cyclical pattern. Every discovery of some new natural wonder is succeeded by the discovery of violence or evil, often in the same places, people and biological processes (again, I won’t get into the specifics pre-release, but Border is a truly strange movie worth discovering) and every step takes Tina closer to something resembling physical and moral wholeness as she’s able to recalibrate the way she sees the world. 

Helped along by wonderful lead performances, which feel like they simultaneously complement and do battle with Göran Lundström’s ingenious make-up, Border is a film that demands both reveling in and critically unpacking its every complicated moment. Being present to bask in the glow of what it offers — love, at times unconditional — comes with the added responsibility of understanding why getting swept up in an uncomfortable kiss or a hand caressing the flow of a river is an option in the first place.

What lies, what violence and what human evils make these simple moments such a beautiful reprieve? What failings must occur in the film’s approach to the real so that its un-reality may shine? Few films bridge the gap between thinking and feeling with such finesse, but Border stands apart in every way imaginable, as a deeply troubling piece on human experience. Is it problematic? Yeah. Is it poignant? That too.

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