14 July 2013
After hearing so many raves about the 10-episode long Danish-Swedish series, Bron/Broen (The Bridge, 2011), I did what most Americans are forced to do to see it: I watched it online. It was worth every minute of watching it on a laptop screen and reading sub-standard subtitles (which read a little bit like a very early and quite comical version of Google Translate). The acting was stellar; the dynamic between the Swedish detective Saga (Sofia Helin) and Danish detective Martin (Kim Bodnia) was one of the best versions of a buddy-cop relationship I’d seen in a long time; and the show’s central concept — a dead body found exactly midway on the bridge connecting the two countries — allowed for a riveting diagnosis of the social problems in those two countries.
So when I heard that the US channel FX planned to remake the series but situate it on the border between the US and Mexico, well, YES.
The story opens with a body found dead in the middle of a bridge that crosses between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. The two detectives who arrive at the scene — one from each country — find that the killer sliced the body clean in half. The subsequent autopsy reveals an additional wrinkle: the top half, belonging to an xenophobic US judge, doesn’t match the bottom half.
“White arms, brown legs,” comments the El Paso detective, Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger), with characteristic unemotional precision. She gradually permits the Chihuahua State Police detective Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir, the star of the wonderful A Better Life) to work with her, particularly after he explains that the “brown legs” belonged to one of the hundreds of Juárez women murdered along the border every year.
So far I have several thoughts:
The storyline follows the original religiously. Thus, viewers like me who fell in love with Saga and Martin and were riveted by certain plot elements (the reporter getting trapped in his own car) will find not much to be surprised by in the plot so far.
What’s truly original here is the view of life on the border, particularly in Juárez, which is one of the most violent places in the world. (Maybe, as some have claimed, the most violent outside of open war zones.) I’ll watch every episode as a result with the hope that this unique setting ultimately changes the narrative in fresh ways. Juárez is a site for both the border drug trade and the fabulously lucrative maquilas (factories) that offer comparatively high wages to Mexican workers, thus attracting huge numbers of people to the region and making it deeply unstable. It’s about time we gave some cultural attention to the border in this way.
One of the things I loved about the original was its treatment of Saga’s place on the autism spectrum. By treatment I mean the characters never said anything explicit. Saga’s probable Asperger syndrome revealed itself gradually over the course of the entire season without ever putting a name to it or fitting her into a tidy box. The original made Saga a true individual, not a set of symptoms or a condition described in the DSM-IV.
The original character had a delicious knack for social gaffes, but in my eyes the show didn’t play them for laughs or to claim she was a naïf. Rather, they highlighted Saga’s independence from and utter disinterest in the social niceties to which women are typically chained. (I’m curious whether any of you disagree or found her character to grate on your nerves — if so, let me know why you found it problematic.)
Whether abruptly asking men in bars, “Do you want to have sex at my place?” or equally abruptly kicking them out of bed when she’s done, Saga was the most unexpectedly wonderful character I’d seen in years. She did it all with a confident forthrightness that made me love her. The great drama of the series rested on how Saga had to stretch herself beyond her usual personal rules and patterns, largely in response to her new partner — but also how she remained utterly herself throughout, which constituted her great strength and weakness all in one. The portrayal of Saga was downright feminist, and more important she was truly three-dimensional.
You can see why I fell in love with the series.
In contrast, the American show seems to feel eager to label (and doesn’t that capture all that is unsubtle about Americans?). Here, Sonya’s awkwardness, rigid adherence to rules, and lack of empathy have already been hammered on as “different” after only a single show. Le sigh.
On the other hand, I like Kruger and Bichir a great deal in these roles, even though/ due to the fact that they’re both preposterously good-looking, even more so than the beautiful Helin in the original. Kruger’s accent works most of the time (she’s German but does well with American accent) and the far more natural actor, Bichir, flows between Spanish and English in a way that won’t alienate viewers who are allergic to reading subtitles for the Spanish bits. Whereas the Swedish actress in the original series had been wide-eyed in a way that signaled her lack of interest in others’ emotions, Kruger looks more distrustful and hostile.
The filming and cinematography of the US series is downright beautiful and infinitely more stylized than the Swedish-Danish original. The pilot was directed by Gerardo Naranjo, whose film Miss Bala I enjoyed so much earlier this spring (if anyone understands the drug war, it’s Naranjo). The shots of that rangy part of the Chihuahuan desert and the haunting scenes of street life in Juárez feel real.
So I have high hopes for the American version of The Bridge, despite the fact that my fellow fans of the Scandinavian original are not going to be surprised by these early episodes. Nevertheless, I have hope that it permits its border setting to affect the narrative even more as the series progresses. Considering that the US version has stretched out the story to 12 episodes, it would seem that the writers have plenty of room in which to develop fresh and location-specific material.
At the creepy end of this pilot episode, an anonymous voice asks, “There are five murders a year in El Paso; in Juárez, thousands. Why? Why is one dead white woman more important than so many dead just across the bridge? How long can El Paso look away?” YES. This is the question that has managed for so long to remain beyond the people most capable of addressing those inequities. How wonderful to find it on basic cable in the US.
And hey, I get to look at Bichir on a weekly basis. Sure, he plays shlubby, but we know he’s movie-star handsome right away, ‘stache or no ‘stache. All is not lost in the re-run aspects of the show. And as the always-on-target Alyssa Rosenberg put it in her review, how wonderful is it to find “a television show that presents women and men as highly effective colleagues and potentially good friends, without defaulting to conventional romantic narrative arcs”?
In the meantime, can Scandinavian friends find a way to get season 2 of Bron/Broen online for me? Please?
5 February 2013
There’s a moment in Gerardo Naranja’s Miss Bala that I can’t shake from my mind. Our protagonist, Laura (Stephanie Sigman) has landed in the Miss Baja California contest, to which she arrives just in the nick of time to walk onstage to do her interview with the pageant’s fawning host in front of a TV audience. He sits her down and opens with one of those gooey, feel-good questions to her — but gets only silence. She stares ahead, unable to answer, allowing for second after second of TV silence to tick by. And then she starts to weep.
If that seems like the worst of all possible beauty pageant moments, Laura’s disastrous TV moment is the very least of her troubles. She starts out as an ordinary Tijuana young woman, auditioning for the Miss Baja contest with an innocent, “My dream is to represent the beautiful women of my state,” and heading out to a club with her more adventurous friend Suzu by promising her father, as usual, that she’ll be careful.
If only there were a way to follow that advice. The first lesson we learn in this border town, riddled with drug war violence, is that you can fall down the rabbit hole even if you’re careful. And unlike Alice in Wonderland, there’s no normal world to return to afterward. No longer Miss Baja, she’s become Miss Bala (Miss Bullet).
Other films about drug violence seek to translate that world to us, but this one leaves it all in chaos. Seen through Laura’s eyes, nothing makes sense. Corrupt American agents, Tijuana police in the pockets of the drug lords, attacks by Mexican DEA agents — it all jumbles together in an unintelligible mess that teaches only one lesson: there’s no way out.
Speaking of things that don’t make sense, it all begins when she comes under the watchful/terrifying eye of drug lord Lino (Noé Hernández, above), who calls her Canelita (little cinnamon) and assigns her to small tasks like driving a car or crossing the border. He’ll feel her up, but sex isn’t his primary interest. Yet once anchored to Lino, it seems she will never get back to her old life.
And so our own Miss Bala ricochets through this crazy world, from making occasional appearances in the surreal environment of the Miss Baja contest to navigating that other Tijuana that’s on fire. Talk about crazy. No wonder she moves through the city with her head bowed — so exactly the opposite posture of a beauty queen. The chaos is so all-encompassing that she, like so many Mexicans near the border, succumbs to it — holding still, for example, while Lino tapes thousands of dollars to her stomach.
Miss Bala is a riveting, maddening film; one spends so much time inside the head — practically inside the skin — of Laura that on stepping back you wonder whether Naranja has figured Laura as a proxy for all Mexicans on the border. That combination of submission to her fate, whiplash at the arrows of fortune, and an occasional mild attempt to exercise her own agency … the schizophrenic state of mind resulting from that existence says something dark and perverse about the state of the border.
Always surprising, weirdly claustrophobic, and darkly funny — no one can imagine Laura before the camera, asked to say something anodyne to a TV audience seeking escapism, without seeing the humor there — this film is brilliant and biting all at once.
Best of all, Naranja’s tale is a fictional what-if story inspired by the real-life case of the 2008 Miss Sinaloa, Laura Zúñiga, who was arrested alongside a host of gang members with a truck full of weapons. You can’t make this shit up, I tell ya; but there’s nothing about Miss Bala that seems fantastical. This is a great, dark film that will leave your skin itching. And you’ll never think about beauty pageants quite the same way again.