“Family is the most important thing,” says Francis (Lisette Morelos) to young Beto (Matías del Castillo) near the end of Origin Unknown (Sin Origen). “Without your family, you lose your source, you lose who you are.”
Families of one kind or another are certainly a key preoccupation in this latest feature from Rigoberto Castañeda (Kilometre 31, 2006; Blackout, 2008), even if here family relations need not be bound by blood, but can also be chosen. After all, Francis is merely the stepmother to the congenitally disabled Beto and his rebellious older sister María (Paola Marín) – although Francis is also the sister to their late mother, and has married their father Pedro de Toro (Daniel Martínez) to help keep the family together, despite María’s resentment of her. In fact wealthy businessman Pedro is himself torn between two families: he loves Francis and his two children very much, and will do – and sacrifice – anything for them; but he is also caught in a criminal clan, having inherited from his own father a close connection to a vicious drug cartel from which he is currently trying, at great risk, to extricate himself for a more legitimate life.
So during the perilous period of transition, Pedro has holed up in the fortress-like Casa de Toro with his immediately family, with his brother-in-law Erik (Ramón Medina) and Erik’s brother Alan (Horacio Garcia Rojas), and with an army of heavily armed guards outside. Into this fraught scenario wanders a terrified young girl (Paulina Gil), herself a sickly orphan whose origin is unknown – and the good-hearted Pedro, who does not hesitate to offer her shelter, will quickly realise that the ninja-like assassins invading his home are not after him but her, and are far more formidable than any cartel hit squad. In a tense standoff against a foe who is near impossible to defeat, this extended family’s allegiances are tested to their limits, as they must decide whether to hand over the girl or to protect her as one of their own.
Often showing its action unfolding in two or more split screens, Origin Unknown also divides itself between more than one genre. For there is an appealingly strange mismatch of tropes in this infiltration of a modern Mexican dynastic crime story by a medieval-seeming cadre of sword-wielding warriors (with high-tech surveillance drones) – while an early scene in which Beto receives a message from beyond (“she is coming”) via a ouija board’s planchette points to a more supernatural frame. This is also a violent siege film, with enemies both without and within.
There is yet another subgenre in play here, hinted at in the family’s name de(l) Toro and the early filmography of their namesake and compatriot. This story type slowly emerges to explain who the girl is, and why a guild of extremely well-trained soldiers is so committed to killing her. This is where Castañeda’s film becomes something like horror, or at least an inversion of familiar horror motifs. These scenes too serve further to crystallise an already established theme in the film: the importance of belonging to a family, whether genetically related or adopted – or both. For here after all, in one way or another, blood runs deep, and amid such deadly stakes, kindness and empathy bring their own miraculous rewards – just so long as you let the right one in.
strap: Rigoberto Castañeda’s genre-blurring Origin Unknown (Sin Origen) shows a family trying to maintain its fragile intergrity while under siege
© Anton Bitel