MIFF 2015: The Chosen Ones

Carefully shot, David Pablos’ The Chosen Ones is startlingly bare. Raw emotion, sparse mise en scène, desolate landscapes and naked bodies paint a powerfully bleak portrait of its much stigmatised, unflattering setting. That setting is Tijuana, Mexico, the site of some of the world’s most renowned red light districts and human traffickers. As sex work is legal in Mexico, the area experiences some of the highest rates of child sex abuse on the planet. This is the topic of Pablos' uncompromising second feature – a confronting but bridled exploration of power, family and love.

The Chosen Ones follows 14-year-old Sofia (Nancy Talamantes) as she falls for an older boy named Ulises (Oscar Torres), unaware he’s attempting to coax her into his family’s teenage prostitution business. Though Ulises too falls for Sofia, he is unable to keep her from imprisonment. In order to remove her, Ulises strikes a deal with his father to replace Sofia with another girl.

Of all the imbalances connected to such an antagonizing subject, Pablos portrays gender as the most prominent. Male characters beat, fuck and curse their way through the film, as their female counterparts are beaten, fucked and cursed. Dehumanized and robbed of their adolescence, the girls’ daily salvation hinges on being chosen by the slew of seedy customers trundling through the brothel’s door. They’re to make no less than 6000 pesos (≈$500 AUD) a night, or face various forms of additional harm. The added speed of Sofia’s transformation from enamoured teenager to submissive sex slave is especially unnerving, and therein lies one of the many upsetting truths Pablos attempts to convey.

Sex is central to The Chosen Ones, yet vision of the act seldom appears on screen. In perhaps the film’s most noteworthy and powerful feature, Pablos overlays shots of Sofia and her suitors pre-coitus, upright and motionless, with horrifying cries, moans and slaps. This combination, closely juxtaposing Sofia’s slender adolescent profile with those belonging to much heavier, older men, obliterates the audience’s moral compass and underscores the terrifying magnitudes of child exploitation.

Though, regrettably, the film’s subject matter and cinematography is all too often relied upon to do the heavy lifting. Few fresh insights are shared, while the introduction of various characters and sub-plots never fully explored dilutes the tension the film labours so hard to fashion. Among these competing narratives, the compelling Sofia-Ulises dynamic is lost, becoming no more than a single branch stemming from a vast tree of comity, corruption and criminal behaviour.

During the film’s production Pablos insisted his intention “was not to make a sordid movie, but rather an intimate portrait of a complex subject”. Repetition of various shots, movements and dialogue catch the senses, representing Tijuana’s cyclical struggle with venality and human trafficking. Almost the entirety of Pablos’ youthful cast has no prior film experience, and each give extraordinarily naturalistic performances in such an intensely bare and candid film. But with superfluous tangents and little new to say on a subject demanding fresh action and discourse, a potentially great feature ultimately settles to become a good one.

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