Ali Abbasi’s second feature – a heady hybrid of romance, Nordic noir and supernatural fantasy – is teeming with ideas, but ends up in conflict with itself
Magic Realism can go one of two ways: it can be transporting and eye-opening, showing the world in a new light, or it can be aggravating and irksome, because the story breaks its own rules and ties itself in knots. In Ali Abbasi’s second film, Border, the Iranian-Swedish director channels his inner Terrence Malick. With the help of cinematographer Nadim Carlsen, Abbasi conjures up hypnotic and dreamlike imagery, which comes with a hint of the bleakness of Scandinavian detective dramas – but he does so in service to a story that pulls in one too many directions.
In this fable-like tale, Tina (Eva Melander), a border guard with unusual facial features – prominent forehead, wide nose, pockmarked skin – uses her sixth sense to identify smugglers coming off the local ferry. She’s learned to identify emotions through smell, picking out fear, anger, and even guilt.
Because of her features, Tina’s aware she’s an outcast, even when those around her make out like she belongs. Attach what allegories you like to this, whether they be race, disability or gender – the film is happy to take them all. Then a passenger gets off the ferry who looks just like her, and her sense of self is shaken. Does this new figure have the same defective chromosome that Tina insists she has? Or are they both something more? Or other? And why is no one else taken aback by the apparent twinning?
There’s a lot to get your teeth into, but Border struggles with its opposing instincts. One moment Abbasi treats his world with a cold practicality, particularly in respect to a dark subplot about child abuse, the next we’re in a world that walks the forgotten path of myth and legend. It’s perhaps commendable that he comes as close as he does to melding the two.