I first heard about director Ali Abbasi’s Border after watching the 2019 Academy Awards in which the film was nominated for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. This category is always amongst my favorites and what I believe is one of the most overlooked categories at the Oscars, as CGI and visual effects begin to take over the landscape of the art. Though Border did lose out to Vice (featuring Christian Bale as Dick Cheney), the conversation surrounding the film seemed to gain momentum post-release – and rightfully so.
Border is a Swedish fantasy film directed and written by Iranian-Danish director Ali Abbasi, featuring a screenplay by Isabella Eklof and John Ajvide Lindqvist. The movie won the Un Certain Regard (a very prestigious award) at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and was chosen as the Swedish entry for the Best Foreign Film at the 2019 Oscars (though it wasn’t nominated for Best Foreign Film, it was nominated for Best Makeup and Hairstyling).
Border: Synopsis *SPOILERS*
The movie’s main character, Tina, is a customs officer for a Swedish border office where she utilizes her unusual ability to sniff out guilt and shame to detect contraband. Her appearance is Neanderthal-like having facial deformities, and as a result, she lives a rather isolated and lonely life.
One day while working at the border, she stops a man and finds a memory card in his phone full of child pornography. When her boss asks her how she was able to find it, she reveals her unusual talent, where he thereafter asks her to investigate who filmed the explicit footage.
The next day, Tina is taken back by a man walking through customs who has the same facial deformities as her. She asks to search his bag, and finds that the bag is filled with maggots and a strange device, that he says is a “larvae hatcher”. Though Tina lets him through, he comes back to customs to voluntarily be searched. Upon being taken into an interrogation room, Tina finds out that his name is Vore, and he has female genitalia and a large scar on his tailbone. She also overhears that he is staying at a nearby hostel.
We then see Tina visiting her father, who does not have the same facial deformities that she has. She is thinking about how Vore has a large scar on his tailbone and decides to ask her father how she got the scar on her face. He tells her that she fell on something when she was a child.
She then decides to visit Vore at the hostel, where she finds him eating maggots off a nearby tree. He offers her a maggot and she asks him if he would like to stay with her at her home. Tina brings him over to stay in her guest house, and he tries to kiss her. Roland, Tina’s roommate, becomes suspicious of Vore.
Later on, we see Tina using her special abilities to sniff out an apartment where the pedophiles with the child pornography live. Inside, they find disturbing footage of an infant being sexually assaulted. The police arrest the people inside the apartment but are unable to find the person in the video assaulting children.
Later on, Vore joins Tina in her house during a thunderstorm that has them both terrified. Huddled underneath a table, the two finally kiss. After the storm, the two of them go outside where Tina reveals that she has a chromosome deformity that makes it impossible for her to have children and difficult to have sex. Vore tells her that she is wrong, and there is nothing wrong with her. The two have sex, and Tina finds that she grows a penis during intercourse. Vore tells her that she is actually a troll, like him.
Tina is taken by what Vore tells her, and she begins to embrace her new identity as a troll. Her newfound confidence has her finally tell roommate, Roland, she wants him to move out of the house.
We then see Tina discover that Vore has taped his refrigerator shut, and when she gets it open she finds a cardboard box with a strange-looking baby inside. Vore explains to her that the baby is a “Hiisi” (of Finnick folklore) or a goblin-like embryo that will die soon. Vore is lying to Tina and really intends to use the embryo as a replacement for a real human infant.
We then see Vore chase down and murder one of the pedophile suspects that is being transferred to another prison. Tina asks why he murdered the man, and Vore explains that he is the one that has been supplying the babies for the child pornography Tina had discovered, and this is Vore’s way of getting revenge on the human species for how they treated trolls in the 1970s. Tina is upset and ashamed of learning this.
The next day, Tina discovers that her neighbors have called an ambulance because something horrible has happened to their baby. Tina knows that it was Vore who switched out their infant for the troll embryo. When Tina goes to confront Vore, she finds that he and all his belongings are gone. She finds a note from Vore telling her to meet him at the ferry. She goes to meet him but explains that she does not approve of Vore’s actions, and just because she is a troll doesn’t mean she can’t experience compassion. Tina signals to some nearby police officers to arrest Vore for his actions, but he jumps overboard.
Later on, Tina is visited by her father who finally confesses to her that she was a troll who was experimented on as an infant until he adopted her after her parents died when she was young.
What seems to be a few months later, Tina gets a package at her doorstep and when she opens it, she finds a troll baby and a postcard from a troll community in Finland.
- The film is based on a short story written by John Ajvide Lindqvist, writer of the critically acclaimed Let the Right One In.
- Border maintains a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes with 115 reviews.
Growing up, did you ever hear about how Walt Disney’s classic animated fairytales were actually a lot more grim than how the cartoons portrayed them? Like how in the original version, Cinderella actually kills her stepmother, or in the Grimm Brothers’ Snow White is punished by the Evil Queen for running away and is made to dance until she falls over dead, or how in Han Christian Andersen’s original Little Mermaid, the prince marries another woman and the Little Mermaid throws herself into the sea where her body dissolves into sea foam?
My viewing of Border made me think of what I’ve begun calling the “adult fairytale”. Border left me feeling like if Disney were to adapt this film with a happy ending 100 years from now, the main character Tina would be taking pictures with kids at Disneyland.
Now it may sound like I didn’t like this movie but I want to clarify – I loved this film.
And though this is the story of the Ugly Duckling mixed in with actual trolls and a sex trafficking ring, the most interesting part of this film is Tina, brilliantly portrayed by actress Eva Melander.
The story is told through the eyes of Tina, a woman conditioned to stares and disgusted looks from everyone she’s ever met because of her appearance. This has pushed her to a life of isolation, living in the woods with a roommate who only uses her and to lead a routine life never expecting anything good from anyone. When she is finally acknowledged at work for her strange abilities to smell guilt, shame or fear, it is never questioned, but always utilized.
When she comes across Vore, she is smitten with him, but ashamed of herself for being so taken by him. However, it’s easy to see why – he looks like her, but is confident and lives a free life. He’s vulgar, but she is intrigued. For the first time, she sees someone like herself but is ashamed that she is attracted to him. However, he is the first person to ever reassure her that despite social constructs, she is perfect as she is. She wants love, intimacy, and someone to tell her father about on their visits before his memory fades away for good, and Vore is an answer to her prayers.
Despite the plot that features graphic imagery, what stuck with me the most is the subtle moments we see of Tina’s everyday life. Her in the grocery store filling her cart while receiving glaring looks from other patrons, her swimming alone in the lake by her house, mushroom picking alone smelling the vegetation, her supernatural connection with wildlife all around her house. We see that yes, she is a troll, but all people – all living things – crave connection, love, intimacy.
I couldn’t help but put myself in Tina’s shoes throughout the film, my eyes brimming with tears. To look so different than everyone else, have strange abilities and not know why, being told you could never have children, let alone normal intimacy with another person. It makes the subtle moments of Tina’s aloneness and quietude all the more engaging.
And at the end, we see, as does “ugly duckling” Tina, that though she is not human it doesn’t mean she would turn against humans. Her loneliness has gained her a strong sense of self, and though the temptation of a man who she finally connects with and looks like is there, she cannot defend bad people doing bad things, regardless of what has been done to her in the past.
Border is a movie I will be thinking about for a long time. Both visually stunning and brilliantly acted, I cannot recommend this movie enough. Tina is a character that I feel both close to and also see myself as in some ashamed ways, and I wish I could tell her that myself.
My star rating: ★★★★☆
Have you seen Border? Will you be adding it to your watchlist? Let me know in the comments below!
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Watch the trailer for Border (2018):