South African film “The Wound”, which was selected as South Africa’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in last year, is exceptional in many aspects. While intriguing us a lot with its vivid anthropological observation of a tribal initiation ritual in South Africa, the movie also examines the closeted sexuality of its three main characters who are respectively struggling with what it means to be a man, and we come to brace ourselves as sensing what can possibly result from the increasingly unstable dynamics among them.
After the opening scene showing a waterfall in some rural area of the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, the movie promptly introduces us to Xolani (Nakhane Touré), a closeted gay man who has lived alone while working as a menial factory worker in Queenstown. After his another mundane workday is over, he soon goes to his rural hometown area outside the city, and he is going to work as one of the mentors for the adolescent boys who will soon go through ‘Ulwaluko’, the traditional initiation ritual of his Xhosa tribe.
Among the initiates assigned to Xolani and other mentors, there is a boy named Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini), who is the son of one of Xolani’s close relatives. Before the ritual is officially started, Kwanda’s father, who is apparently an affluent urban guy, has a private talk with Xolani. It is clear that the guy decided to thrust his son into the ritual because his son is ‘too soft’ and needs to be, well, manlier, and Xolani assures his relative that he will do as much as he can for making a man out of Kwanda.
The ritual is subsequently begun with the swift circumcision process on the initiates, and that will probably make some of you cringe even though the movie does not graphically depict this process. One by one, the initiates get their genitalia cut by the prepared sharp blade of a hired doctor, and they all have to shout “I’m a man!” as trying to endure the resulting pain. To be frank with you, this moment took me back to my circumcision experience in 1989, and it surely reminded me that what I had to endure at that time was pretty mild and safe in comparison.
While their genital wound is naturally healed during next several days, Kwanda and other initiates are required to do several things in the mountain under the guidance of their mentors, but this urban boy does not get along well with other initiates, most of whom are from rural areas in contrast to him. Because he does not look that tough enough, he often becomes a target of ridicules, but he is not someone who is easily daunted by that, and he sometimes shows his rebellious side. At one point, every other initiate makes a proud speech on family in front of elders and mentors, but Kwanda defiantly refuses to do the same, and that certainly causes a disagreeable moment for everyone else except Xolani, who feels some sympathy toward Kwanda because he already sensed Kwanda’s homosexuality from the beginning.
However, the object of Xolani’s desire is Vija (Bongile Mantsai), another mentor in the group who looks like your average alpha male but then turns out to be Xolani’s old lover. Although he is a family guy with wife and three kids at present, Vija does not hesitate at all whenever he gets a chance to be alone with Xolani, and we come to gather that the ritual has been sort of Brokeback Mountain for them.
While Xolani feels good to be with Vija again, it is apparent that he has also been dissatisfied with how his relationship with Vija has been going nowhere. Because homosexuality is an unspeakable taboo in their world, they have accepted their closeted status for years, but Xolani wants to go a little further in their relationship, and that later leads to an emotionally tense moment between them.
In case of Kwanda, it does not take much time for him to realize what is going on between Xolani and Vija, and their secret and hypocrisy further fuel his rebellious spirit. Ironically, he comes to be quite sure of himself after being pushed to a bloody deed by Vija later in the story, and he accordingly becomes determined to reveal his true self openly to others.
As its main characters continue to pull or push each other, the movie slowly dials up the level of tension while steadily sticking to its realism. Occasionally providing several beautiful wide shots, cinematographer Paul Ozgur vividly captures small details and nuances to observe, and we gradually get ourselves immersed in the world inhabited by the characters in the movie. The three main performers in the film are all convincing in their respective roles; while Nakhane Touré, a well-known South African artist who has been quite open about his homosexuality unlike his character, is effective in his phlegmatic appearance which often speaks volumes, Bongile Mantsai complements Touré well with swaggering machismo, and Niza Jay Ncoyini holds his own place well between his two co-stars.
“The Wound” is the first feature film by director/co-writer John Trengove, who made several short films and TV drama series before making this debut of his. While the screenplay written by him and his co-writers Thando Mgqolozana and Malusi Bengu are a bit too blatant at times, he did a competent job of handling sensitive subjects with enough respect and consideration, and the result is another recent notable queer film which deserves to be mentioned along with “Call Me by Your Name” (2017), “God’s Own Country” (2017) and “BPM (Beats Per Minute)” (2017). This is a tough stuff indeed, but it is an interesting and thought-provoking drama about sexuality and masculinity, and you will not forget easily what it presents to you.