Moffie (2019) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A rough military gay drama set in South Africa, 1981

South African film “Moffie”, whose very title is derogatory Afrikkans for homosexual, does not present much attitude to its intriguing main subjects, and that was often frustrating for me during my viewing. As a movie about a certain type of white male experience in South Africa during the early 1980s, it surely draws our attention from the beginning, but it merely presents its story and characters without enough depth and insight to hold our attention, and that is a disappointment considering how it could be more interesting with its distinctive local background and details.

The movie, which is set in 1981, initially gives us a bit of historical background information. As the white minority government of South Africa came to have a military conflict with the communist government of Angola on their border, it became mandatory for all of the able-bodied white South African males between the age of 17-60 to go through a two-year military service, and Nicholas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer), the adolescent hero of the movie, is no exception. Before leaving for a military training camp, he has a celebratory dinner with his mother and her current husband, and we later get a little amusing moment when his divorced father surreptitiously gives him an adult magazine to be enjoyed in private later.

Right from when he gets on a train to take him and many other teenage trainees to their military training camp, Nicholas soon comes to see how hard and difficult things can be for him during next two years. As your average introverted adolescent kid, he does not like much the rowdy and drunken mood among other teenage trainees, and there is a nasty moment as he (and we) witnesses a number of his fellow trainees viciously harassing some black guy at a station by which their train happens to drop for a few minutes.

When Nicholas and his fellow trainees finally arrive at the camp, they are instantly slapped with harsh and brutal treatments from their drill instructors, who relentlessly hurl many kinds of insults toward them just like that no-hold-barred drill instructor character in the first half of Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (1987). For example, they are forced to take off all the clothes for medical examination procedures, and their drill instructors certainly do not overlook any single chance to humiliate and insult them.

After that point, the movie goes through a number of rough military training scenes along with its hero, who surely suffers a lot but manages to endure day by day. Although he still looks like a quiet loner in the bunch, he is not totally alone at least as befriending some nerdy lad who gradually becomes his best friend at the camp, and you may be amused to see them singing together a certain forbidden song which will probably remind you of Oscar-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” (2012).

Meanwhile, the movie gradually lets us sense more of Nicholas’ homosexuality, which is slyly emphasized to us as the camera phlegmatically looks at his colleagues’ naked bodies during their routine shower time. It goes without saying that homosexuality is not tolerated at all under the extremely masculine environment surrounding him, and he becomes more guarded than before when two trainees happen to be savagely punished and humiliated after getting caught for their homosexual interaction.

Nevertheless, Nicholas cannot help himself at all when one of his fellow trainees tentatively approaches to him at one cold wet night in the middle of another grueling training session of theirs. Both of them remain to be discreet as much as possible after having a little romantic time together, but then Nicholas finds himself becoming quite anxious and agonized when his secret lover is suddenly gone later in the story.

Instead of developing its hero’s anxiety and agony further, the screenplay by director Oliver Hermanus and his co-writer Jack Sidey, which is based the autobiographical novel of the same name by Andre Carl van der Merwe, abruptly moves onto a military operation into which Nicholas and other trainees are put after the training period, and that is where the movie becomes less interesting than before. Although we get to know a bit more about Nicholas and his repressed homosexuality, he is still more or less than a blank figure onto the homophobic mood and environment of the South African military is projected, and the expected moment between him and his lover around the end of the story is frustratingly ambiguous without much impact.

As a gay South African filmmaker of color, Hermanus certainly could provide outsider’s viewpoint on the story of his film, but he adamantly sticks to his dry and dispassionate storytelling approach throughout the movie, while also having it confined within the rather insular viewpoint of its white male South African hero. While Nicholas is sometimes ridiculed by his fellow trainees for his British heritage, that is inarguably nothing compared to what millions of black South Africans suffered and endured everyday during that period, and you may be bothered by the constant marginalization of black South Africans in the movie, which is understandable considering its story and background but can be grating to you from time to time.

On the whole, “Moffie” is a curious piece of work which brings some fresh elements to its queer drama territory, but it is also thin and shallow in terms of story and characters. I did not feel like wasting my time during my viewing, but the overall result only reminds me of several better military queer films including Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail” (1999), and, to be frank with you, I would rather recommend them first.

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