AH1 Film Review: Miss Bala
A rainy day in Southern California is about as shocking to my existence as a film not glorifying the inner workings of Mexico's drug cartels. Yet a press and industry screening of Catherine Hardwicke's Miss Bala at ArcLight's flagship cinema hall in Hollywood was compelling enough to drag me out my comfortable pajamas and warm bed, brave the rain and do something I haven't done in a while: watch a film on the big screen. Perhaps the only thing more shocking than all of these events is finding a write-up of Mexican American themed film on an online outlet focused on Asian American news, culture, entertainment and policy. More on that later in this feature - let's first talk about Miss Bala, or Miss Bullet, if you want a literal Spanish-to-English translation.
Miss Bala, which stars Gina Rodriguez of Jane the Virgin fame in the titular role, is a part of a slowly growing movement in Hollywood, one where female directors take the helm of an adrenaline-filled action film. Hardwicke, to be sure, doesn't hold any punches back in channeling her inner Kathyrn Bigelow. The film's action sequences kick in relatively quickly, but Hardwick first introduces us to Miss Bala's two Latinx stars - Gloria (Rodriguez) and Suzu (Cristina Rodlo). Gloria, a struggling makeup artists in Hollywood, takes a weekend trip to Tijuana, where her best friend, Suzu, lives and will be participating in a regional beauty pageant. We immediately take a rooting interest in Gloria - she's in a job she doesn't like and working for a boss who doesn't respect her.
Our empathy and relatability quickly transitions to a TGIF-like moment when Gloria clocks out of work and makes the drive from Downtown L.A. to Tijuana. The energetic music playing during this collaged sequence immediately sucked me into the film. I quickly found myself dancing in my seat and feeling good about braving the rain (and abandoning my warm bed) to catch this film on the big screen.
It didn't take long for Tijuana to join Rodriguez as one of the biggest characters of Miss Bala. No sooner did Gloria arrive in Baja California's largest city did Tijuana carry her weight as worthy film star. Why "Tijuana" isn't given first or second billing on Miss Bala's promotional posters is beyond me. The scenery of Mexican townscapes were as vibrant as the portion of the soundtrack we heard shortly after the film's opening sequences. The director accurately represented the modern architectural vision of Tijuana, which we don't often get to see - well not beyond the veil of cartel crime and stories or poverty, at least. We often witness similar misrepresentations in Western media's take of Asian countries - particularly when it comes to issues crime and poverty. Mark this as our first tie-in of this film to Asian/Asian American issues.
The plot picks up at a nightclub, where we meet the film's antagonists - primarily, Ismael Cordova's Lino - and witness the first of many action sequences. Gloria and Lino initially cross paths in the women's restroom but the stakes are raised a few scenes later, when our heroine and antagonist are face-to-face again in a hostile setting. We spend the remainder of the film watching Gloria and Lino go back and forth between being equal parts tense and mutual comfort.
Miss Bala, from a cinematic and directorial perspective, deserves credit for its fight sequences - which was, if you needed the reminder, directed by a woman. I never considered there might be a difference in perspective, however the film's action scenes were just as heart-pounding as they would have been had a man directed the same sequences. Hardwicke also delivered in tasteful storytelling. The visuals she presented managed to convey the dirtiness of the demeaning and disrespectful treatment of women in the grimy world of cartel-run trafficking - all without resorting to gratuitous vulgarity to trigger feelings of recoil and repulsion amongst moviegoers.
Then there's Gloria, who, in the titular role, is a relatable character for so many of us - particularly a young millennial woman of color who is trying to find her place in the world and create something more than a mediocre life. Her struggles reaches a boiling point during the second act, when Gloria realizes no man - or no knight in shining armor - is coming to rescue her from her predicament. A switch flips in her head, removing thoughts of fairy tale endings and replacing those thoughts with survival. Sometimes a girl must save her own self and kick some serious butt.
It's great to see a woman of color as a lead female action hero. Perhaps Miss Bala will carve out future action-starring roles for Rodriguez and other women of color. Rodriguez leaves her girl next door image at the door, turning into a badass beauty pageant winner who owned the film - and did so without conforming to old Hollywood stereotypes portrayed by other action heroines. Gloria, unlike The Bride in Kill Bill or Cipher in The Fate of the Furious, was an everyday brown girl who, like the rest of us, dealt with everyday issues but found a way to shoot a gun (while properly aiming it at the bad guys).
Even more important was the way Gloria reminded use who have ever felt like our worth was overshadowed - especially immigrants, minorities, women of color or anyone else marginalized by society - that we all have it in us to dig deep and find the strength t push us through the barriers we face in life, despite our circumstances.
Then there were the struggles with immigrant identity - chalk this up as the next major tie-in the world of Asian Americans. Lino, toward the end of Miss Bala's second act and in a romantic setting over street tacos, has a vulnerable conversation with Gloria. He reveals the struggles he faces being a Mexican who also lived in the United States, telling Gloria he was too Gringo to be Mexican and too Mexican to be Gringo. Such struggles are commonly faced among the generations of Asian immigrant children, grandchildren and beyond who feel they aren't connected enough to his or her motherland to connect with the natives, all while fighting to be recognized as an everyday American in the United States.
Miss Bala, which was loosely based on the real-life beauty pageant/drug cartel story of Miss Sinaloa 2008, heralds Rodriguez as an unassuming heroine. I certainly wanted to see a little more development of her inner conflict, which ultimately led to her transformation from unassuming woman from L.A. to kickass survivor. That said, Miss Bala planted quite the serious question in my head: had I been put into Miss Bala's extreme adrenaline spiking circumstances, would I have found the strength to survive? Maybe we all have a reservoir of strength in us to overcome our personal adversities.
If there's anything to take away from Miss Bala, it's this: I loved I could cheer for someone who I could see in myself. Rodriguez was just a regular girl having to face extraordinary circumstances. If she can be fierce in her response, well, I can, too. The story of Miss Bala, albeit a remake of a 2011 film by the same name, serves as a reminder for any woman sitting in the audience: you can be the superhero of your own life.
Miss Bala opened on Feb. 1 and is now playing.
What We Liked: Relatable female action hero, action sequences,diverse cast.
Why You Should Watch: Entertaining action film; tasteful storytelling; no gory violence.