Bullets Over the Border
Miss Bala was not the original title choice but is in the end fitting. “Miss” for Laura Guerrero, twenty-three (model Stephanie Sigman in her first feature role), and for the Miss Baja California crown she aspires to wear to help out her clothes-selling father and adored kid brother Arturo. And “Bala,” bullet, of which plenty fly in the hundred-thirteen minutes.
Of his New York Film Festival selection previously shown at Cannes and Toronto, Gerardo Naranjo said the purpose was to be a corrective to media misinformation and two other recent films about his country’s lawlessness. The lone current Mexican entry at the festival -- made there in 1962 by Spaniard Buñuel, The Exterminating Angel opens a series of past Festival highlights -- has occasioned polemics at home, not as cinema but as related to international image. Even the young director-cowriter’s (with Mauricio Katz) mother advised presenting, instead, a nicer side of south of the border.
He avoided advancing personal solutions but admitted that the situation has long been brewing out of national propensities and has become too complex for schematization. Drug lords and generals, military and cartel foot soldiers, poverty and machismo, a meddling DEA and American appetite for heroin, honesty and greed, all so intermixed that confusion reigns.
Where ordinary pedestrians need be wary of vans with tinted windows, of elected or appointed officials and the law itself, there is no defined good guys vs. bad guys. This film mirrors that. Does the woman return to the gang leader in resignation or fear for family and self, is she physically coerced or alternatively toyed with barefoot on a dirt road, is she conscious of omitting a warning about Enrique “Kike” Camera aka Orlando Gómez (José Yenque); and that leader, does he sell out her and his companions, is he a double agent, or is he one with quondam enemies in corruption?
Sigman chose not to meet the 2009 Miss Sinaloa (Mazatlán) in whose experiences the script found its origins though not its essence. Mexican despite her name, she is fairer skinned than her film character; one wonders if she was made up to look duskier, although race is overtly brought up only by a petulant white pageant contestant.
Green and country in Tijuana, with bosom friend Irene Azuela “Suzu” Ramos (Jessica Berlanga) Laura carries her best outfit in a bag to register for the local “Miss” selection leading to the statewide finals. She reluctantly meets her outgoing friend at a club where, not at ease and about to leave, she witnesses men pepper the crowd with automatic weapons and drive away bearing three bodies.
Searching for Suzu, Laura asks for help from a parked traffic cop, who at once hands her over to the Estrella gang, the previous night’s killers out for a DEA agent. Boss Chalino “Lino” Valdez (Noe Hernández) takes a shine to this woman he nicknames “Canelita,” enlists her unrebellious aid, and hands her cash for dresses for the beauty contest he strong-arm arranges for her to win (despite her onstage freeze-up). She walks away but wounded Linito brings his henchmen to her house, lets the father and brother go, and has some sort of sex with her. “Some sort of,” for the screen goes totally dark, a pleasant contrast to the usual artsy love scenes.
The screen is frequently underlit. In any case, Laura’s face barely varies in emotion, its narrow range confined to sorrow, bovine resignation, or simple emptiness. Once in a while remembering missing Suzu, she improbably knows how to drive, and many shots are from within vehicles. She drives and is flown north to near San Diego and later, as Miss Baja, instructed to drive to the lechery of General Salomón Duarte (Miguel Couturier) in a climactic, supremely confusing assassination attempt.
It is difficult to distinguish crooks from cops, overlapping or even the same, with traffickers using techniques learned from Mexican and American agencies. Shootouts are sharp cracklings and deaths indiscriminate but without sensationalizing the gore. Neither of the two countries looks good, both pictured as overconfident, ineffective and corrupt. It would be humorous if the reality were not so catastrophic, as Naranjo and Sigman recounted the ease with which, despite Homeland Security bravura, they and the crew crisscrossed the frontier and could have been transporting arms, drugs, or human beings. Solutions far away, confusion holds sway while, by implication, citizenry suffers.
(Released by Metrodome Distribution and rated "R" by MPAA.)