Thursday, 14 June 2018

On DVD: "The Wound"

Conventional movie wisdom has always said to give viewers - and male viewers in particular - something in the first five minutes that will turn them on: it'll catch the eye, quicken the pulse, and generally set the blood to running. The Wound, a bracing debut from writer-director John Trengove, will have men crossing their legs awkwardly for entirely different reasons. We open on a circumcision ritual as old as time and apparently still practised in certain rural areas of South Africa: a surgeon, demonstrating all the delicacy of the average army drill instructor, instructs a hastily convened group of young men to spread their thighs before whipping off their foreskins in one brisk and unlovely movement, stirring up the adrenaline in an attempt to usher his patients past any related physical pain ("You're a man now! You're a man!"). So begins a film of notable rummaging in the crotch area, that probes the softest, most vulnerable part of the male anatomy, and wonders how that thing down there might relate to the rest of us: our identity, our sense of pride.

Our hero is Xolani (Nakhane Touré), a factory worker in the city, returning to the countryside to serve as a caregiver in this ritual, applying balm and bandages to the areas affected in an attempt to right what went wrong during his own circumcision several years earlier, when his recovery period intersected with the arrival on campsite of a rabid dog. (Don't uncross those legs just yet.) When we first see him, Xolani is wearing the beanie and swaggering, no-fucks-given demeanour of a street tough, but subsequent observation reveals another side of his personality: he's (secretly) gay. In this, he's not alone - throughout the circumcision camp, we find him sneaking off for man-on-man sessions with fellow outsider Vija (Bongile Mantsai) - but he is, evidently, not the men the macho men around him would perhaps prefer and expect him to be. We glean as much from the way the father of one initiate, Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini), worries that his son - a catalyst in what unfolds, opening up a rift between Xolani and Vija, and the possibility of change - has been wussified by his mother.

We've seen gay-themed coming-of-age dramas before, but rarely can they have looked and felt this primal. A long way - both geographically and figuratively - from the sunny suburbia of April's Love, Simon, The Wound is a film of men sitting round a campfire, faces painted, picking fights with symbolic sticks. The setting is a little like those New Age retreats the movies sporadically mocked through the Nineties and Noughties, but there is, clearly, more at stake here than bruised egos: Trengove leads us into a clearing where masculinity can be performed, antlers locked, and a degree of mastery - over one's true self, and others - can be demonstrated. If the circumcision ritual is specific to the Xhosa people - as specific, say, as the glottal clicking these characters break into whenever their conversations turn fraught - it will likely also translate for any audience that know that growing up isn't merely a matter of a simple snip here and there. These plains connect in some ways with those of Brokeback Mountain and the farmland of recent Brit hit God's Own Country: a site upon which nature is revealed, and a place of such isolation that only a fool would deny or suppress their attractions. What's the point of a two-man tent, if you've nobody to share it with?

Trengove's direction proves deceptively quiet and slight: here is the very opposite of those loud, willy-waggling Major Movie Statements on Masculinity our male-skewed entertainment industry has enabled through the years. For the first half-hour or so, this filmmaker seems perhaps a little too beholden to that Dardennesian device of fixing the camera to the neck and shoulders of a character as they journey, in all senses of the word, from here to there; and the sensitivity is such that a few notes of editorialising dropped into the penultimate scene clang like dropped cowbells. (After eighty minutes of study this attentive, we don't need one character to suddenly ask "What's the purpose of a dick, anyway?") For the most part, though, The Wound retains an impressive confidence in the ability of its landscape and the complexity of its conflicted characters to draw us in and keep us engaged. Paul Özgür's eloquent, crepuscular cinematography, forever locating these young men in some wider transitional moment, recalls another, more celebrated recent drama of black masculinity, against which Trengove's film amply holds its own: Moonlight.

The Wound is available on DVD through Peccadillo from Monday.

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