Sean Alexander offers another view on the Borat sequel.
Fourteen years have lapsed since Kazakhstani reporter Borat Sagdiyev first came to global attention in the hands of Sacha Baron Cohen’s fearless, audacious and at times cringe-inducing reporter. The world at large – and specifically for Borat – have not been kind since 2006: while right-wing politics has come to dominate the landscape both here through Brexit and in the US with the accession of Donald Trump to POTUS, the shame Kazakhstan’s third best reporter brought on his nation has seen him demoted to hard labour on a chain-gang. With Kazakhstan’s exports in potassium and pubis both depleted, Borat is mysteriously sprung from incarceration with a new mission: charm the new leader of the free world into accepting Kazakhstan back into the fold of global exports by offering Johnny the Monkey (a porn star chimpanzee) as a gift. With Borat back in favour with his glorious nation, what could possibly go wrong? Inevitably, quite a lot.
Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm (now streaming on Amazon Prime) follows the same travelogue, episodic nature of the 2006 breakout film. Borat soon discovers that Johnny the Monkey has been inadvertently eaten by the reporter’s own, feral daughter Tutar (the newcomer Maria Bakalova, proving as fearless as Cohen in submerging herself in a character that has no self-censorship), leading to Borat instead negotiating the sale of Tutar to Vice-President Michael Pence (Trump having not forgiven Borat for taking a dump outside his building in 2006) as recompense. What follows is part road-trip, part My Fair Lady odyssey as the curious and intuitive Tutar starts to question her place as a young woman in the world, and doubt the word of her father and the ‘Daughter Owner’s Manual’ he lectures her with; implying anything from vagina dentata to women’s brains being made of string. Fortunately, some of the women that Tutar meets along the way are keen to redress what they see as modern-day medieval enslavement.
The laughs are frequent and mostly bodacious. As with his TV shows and the first film, Cohen mines a rich seam of bigotry, sexism and downright fascistic thinking as his hapless and harmless clown inveigles himself into each situation. As a Jewish man, and outspoken critic of the recent resurgence in anti-Semitic feeling (particularly through its condonement by leading social media platforms), Cohen acts the bigot in order to draw out the actual prejudice of those he meets. A hardware owner is persuaded to say which size gas cannister will be sufficient to suffocate twenty (presumably Jewish) gypsies; a cake shop decorator happily writes ‘Jews will not replace us’ in icing without even batting an eyelid; and at a Trumpian rally of anti-mask protestors (the film was shot concurrently with this year’s COVID-19 crisis), one of Borat’s songs calling for the execution of journalists, scientists and the W.H.O. even elicits a Nazi salute from someone in the crowd.
So far, so dispiriting. But Cohen’s comedic, chameleonic skills ensure one is not left to dwell too long on the dark side of humanity. Joining him with equal bravado is newcomer Bakalova, whose fairy-tale transformation from feral creature in a cage to successful TV reporter (and empowered woman) is the emotional heart of this sequel. When she discovers – and then attempts to preach – the joys of masturbation to a women’s club meeting (one of the film’s more uncomfortable examples of cringe comedy) she and her father go their separate ways when she refuses the breast augmentation that is intended to lure Trumpian politician Rudy Giuliani. Borat briefly considers suicide – his preferred means being to visit a synagogue during a mass shooting – only to discover that not only are Jews not the stereotypes he (and by extension those he encounters) presumed, but that one of the ladies there is in fact a Holocaust survivor (Judith Dim Evans, who died shortly after making the film, and whose legacy is marked in the closing credits). Despite being dressed as the most Dali-esque conception of a Jewish male – enormous comedy nose, bags of money with dollar signs, demon wings – Borat is accepted into the synagogue by Judith and her friend. They share soup and find common ground, in one of the film’s few moments of genuine solemnity before the chaos resumes again.
Fortunately, even this is heightened by the sweet and touching bond that slowly grows between Borat and his daughter. Dreaming of a life in a (literally) gilded cage like Melania Trump, Tutar instead grows in both education and agency: learning some valuable life lessons from women including Jeanise, a ‘babysitter’ who Borat entrusts his daughter to while he raises the final $72 for her boob job. Moments like Borat gifting his daughter a prom dress for her introduction to civilised society is one of several Cinderella moments, as she exposes the lies told in the daughter’s manual she carries with her, discovering instead the ‘only book that tells the truth – Facebook’ (Cohen on prime satire form here…). But what seals the fairy-tale story is the fact her father realises he loves his daughter as much (if not more) than his estranged sons, and rushes to save her virtue before Giuliani (in a somewhat uncomfortable moment of post-interview clothes loosening) can deflower her.
Returning home with no ‘great success’, Borat is unfathomably pardoned by his government, only for Tutar to uncover the real motive behind his global trip: to spread the Covid virus as penance for America’s abandonment of Kazakhstan in the first place. Fortunately, Borat has all the evidence recorded by the ‘demon who lives in his phone’ Brian (a hapless tech-head who Borat bamboozles earlier in the film) and thus establish some new policies that take account of his daughter’s own transformation into a woman of intelligence and agency. Three months later and Kazakhstan is a feminist nation – if, by feminist, you also class Saudi Arabia and the USA as feminist – and where ‘the running of the Jew’ is no longer a national festival. Instead, father and daughter are equal partners in Kazakhstan’s news reportage, while Tutar may have helped teach some Western women that fairy-tale endings aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be…