Set in the mountains of the Eastern Cape province, Xolani returns to a secluded Xhosa community of men to participate in Ukwaluka, a traditional initiation into manhood that begins with the ritual circumcision of the adolescent candidates. His role is as a caregiver, assigned to shepherd “city boy” Kwanda, who is “too soft” in the eyes of his uncle. The mentoring duties last for several weeks and serve as an excuse for Xolani to renew his secret sexual relationship with childhood friend and family man Vija, a fellow caregiver. It doesn’t take long before the quietly rebellious Kwanda realises his caregiver’s secret, a revelation that if made public would certainly jeopardise Xolani’s position and safety within a community that considers homosexuality a threat to its cultural values.
Aspects of The Wound’s narrative, as well as the remote setting, will unavoidably echo Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, and it’s hard not to think of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight when director John Trengove tackles the thematic spine of his film: the exploration of black masculinity and what it means to be a man. However, these comparisons shouldn’t diminish the impact of what the filmmaker has accomplished, especially when you consider that this is his debut feature. He bravely courts controversy by tackling several taboo subject matters and wisely elects to ‘show’ the sudden razor circumcision in the film’s opening moments, thereby allowing the rite of passage to become an engaging framing device, as opposed to a narrative hindrance. Trengove and his co-writers Thando Mgqolozana and Malusi Bengu use this framework as a launchpad to deliver a gay narrative that portrays the emotional consequences of repressed sexuality when faced with ingrained homophobia and traditional rhetoric regarding masculine identity.
At the centre of it all is a wonderfully understated performance from Nakhane Touré, a famous and openly gay South African singer, who wows in his screen debut. Also noteworthy is Paul Ozgür’s lensing. Whether it’s the nocturnal shots of campfire flames licking the faces of the teen initiates or the white body paint that collides so meaningfully with the red slashes on the traditional loincloths, the DOP beautifully navigates the metaphoric images and the secluded setting. He contributes in no small way to heightening the thematic content and the story’s emotional layers.
Measured and engaged, The Wound is a triumph. It marks Trengove as a name to watch, and stands alongside God’s Own Country and Call Me By Your Name as one of the queer films not to miss in the second half of 2017.
The Wound | Directed by John Trengrove ((South Africa, 2017), with Nakhane Touré, Bongile Mantsai, Niza Jay. Starts September 14
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