SFF 2012 Review: Miss Bala

Miss Bala - Stephanie Sigman bikini underwear

The stark and fast-paced Mexican action film heralds a new voice in this Hollywood-inspired look inside the drug cartels of Mexico.

Miss Bala (2011)

SFF 2012 Logo

Miss Bala poster

DirectorGerardo Naranjo

Writer(s)Mauricio KatzGerardo Naranjo

Runtime: 113 minutes

StarringStephanie SigmanNoe Hernandez

FestivalSydney Film Festival 2012

Distributor: Transmission

Country: Mexico

Rating (?)Better Than Average Bear (★★★½)

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Mexico’s $25 billion drug trade, as the credits to Gerardo Naranjo’s melodrama Miss Bala (“Miss Bullet”) tell us, has been responsible for over 36,000 deaths over the last half decade. This is not just a statistic for a slew of people living south of the US border, but an indicator of their way of life. Written by Naranjo and Mauricio Katz, the film plays out over three days in the life of a would-be beauty queen who gets caught in the crossfire of the so-called Mexican Drug Wars, and while there is an important message to be delivered here, Naranjo never lets that get in the way of a rapid-fire story.

Laura (Stephanie Sigman) is an aspiring model growing up in poor family from Tijuana, who tries out for the local division of the Miss Baja contest. Things go astray when she finds herself in the bathroom of a gangland nightclub when a rival group arrives to execute everybody in the building. Chasing after her best friend, talking to a cop only gets her handed over to La Estrella, a gang led by the feral Lino Valdez (Noe Hernandez). She is soon tasked with a series of errands, for which Valdez will fix the Miss Baja contest for her in return. Laura finds herself on the run from the law and the gangsters as the situation escalates.

For a film that largely deals with sex, drugs and violence, Naranjo shows incredible restraint given his subject matter. Not much is explicit, with frequent cut-aways from the sex or extreme violence. This gives it all the more impact, with the implication of some fairly nefarious needs enough to send chills down our collective spines. Indeed, it is in this self-discipline that Naranjo begins to make his grander point, one that deals with the effects of violence on a people, here in the form of a young woman who simply wanted to represent Mexico in a different arena. Naranjo’s world is relentless, one in which corruption exists at all levels, and it is this bleak outlook that immediately separates Miss Bala from its cousins north of the border.

It would be easy to point out the deficiencies in model-turned-actress Sigman’s performance, which often consists of her running scared in various states of undress. Yet her relative inexperience in film mirrors the fish-out-of-water pacing of the film, sitting somewhere between Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah (2008) and Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi (1992). Largely told through Laura’s eyes, the film manages to keep the audience off-balance throughout and marks Naranjo as a voice to watch.

Miss Bala played at the Sydney Film Festival in June 2012.