29 October 2011

Drop Dead Gorgeous

The most disappointing thing about Miss Bala was that even after watching the film, I still didn't understand why it was called Miss Bala rather than Miss Baja or even Miss Baja California given that the film's heroine of sorts, Laura (Stephanie Sigman), is hoping to win the Miss Baja California beauty pageant. I should have just checked in a Spanish dictionary before, of course, because it turns out that bala is the Spanish word for bullet. Who knew? In any case, there are far more scenes with bullets than scenes of the beauty pageant in Gerardo Naranjo's new film, which boasts Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal and Diego Luna as executive producers, as well as former model Sigman as its star. This is not a Mexican version of the darkly funny Drop Dead Gorgeousalthough as Laura spends much of the movie fearing for her life, they could just have called the English translation Drop Dead.

Miss Bala is an intense and draining film about a young woman, Laura, who is living a quiet life in Tijuana with her father and much younger brother but who dreams of becoming Miss Baja California. We don't get to see much of her dreaming of this, however. After she and her best friend Suzu make it through the initial audition, they go out to a club to celebrate (this being Tijuana, the "VIP area" is just a less crowded part of the large tent this club seems to occupy, complete with plastic garden furniture). Laura wants to go home but Suzu is having too good a time with her boyfriend. While Laura is in the bathroom, a number of heavily armed gangster types break into the building, ask if she's going to tell anyone what she's seen and, when she says no, let her rejoin her friends. Heavy gunfire follows and Laura barely manages to escape. But when Laura shows up for the pageant rehearsal the following morning, she finds out Suzu hasn't shown up yet; oh, and she and Suzu have been kicked out for being late.

Laura tries to track down her friend, asking a taxi driver if he can try to find out where Suzu is using his radio; he agrees, grudgingly, but then hands Laura over to the gangsters, led by Lino Valdez (Noe Hernandez), who takes a liking to Laura, despite the fact she seems to be sticking her nose where it isn't wanted. He offers to help her find Suzu as long as she does some "errands" for him. These errands include driving getaway cars, parking the car Lino uses to dump some bodies outside the US embassy, travelling to San Diego to pass on large wodges of cash and collect some information, and so on. The descent of Laura's world into one filled with terror, crime and drugs is shockingly rapid. Lino seems to want to be Laura's friend or protector (and maybe more) and he offers to help get her back into Miss Baja California, even though by this point, all Laura wants is for her life to go back to normal, but as the film makes its dark, bleak progress, this seems like an increasingly unlikely dream.

Sigman is fantastic as the brave but terrified Laura and Hernandez manages to ooze untrustworthiness from every pore, even as he appears to treat Laura kindly and to want to help her. The film itself is suspenseful and, at times, difficult to watch: even when something very bad has just happened, the sense of unease Naranjo creates means you always get the feeling that something even worse is just about to take place.

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