Forgotten Kingdom, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/05/14 12:37:44

"Not a bad job of getting in touch with one's roots."
3 stars (Average)

Anybody who has ever owned a globe or a world map has probably found himself or herself curious about Lesotho; the small landlocked kingdom in the middle of South Africa is one of only two or three nations in the world to be completely encircled by another. And while director Andrew Mudge's new film set there doesn't necessarily give much insight on how that geography affects life there, it's still a fine, intimate story set in a place many in the audience haven't even visited cinematically before.

It starts out in Johannesburg, where Atang Mokoenya (Zenzo Ngqobe) is spending his twenties getting into trouble. A trip out to the township for a rare visit with his father reveals that the man has died, and has already set money aside for a burial back in the village in Lesotho where Atang was born. He intends to return to the city after the funeral, but seeing childhood friend Dineo (Nozipho Nkelemba) gives him his first reason to stick around a little longer, while other things will also prevent a speedy return to the city.

It's actually almost comical at times how Atang finds reasons to get off a bus although Mudge has something a bit heavier in mind to get him to have a greater appreciation for his father and the land he called home. It's far from subtle - at the start of the movie, he's using a European name and eager to sell the mementos that have been handed down to him and even get some money by downgrading the casket - and at times, it's quite forced, as when Atang takes a job in a textile plant for no apparent reason. Sure, it has been mentioned that his father once had that sort of job, and Atang does need to be kept occupied while some other things happen elsewhere, but that's a reason for Mudge to put him there, not for Atang to go along that path.

Things get a bit better when he starts moving through the country, even if his orphan companion (Lebohang Ntsane) can have the tendency to be whatever Mudge needs him to be - gullible kid, experienced local, cryptic spirit guide. It's an obvious metaphorical journey, but generally an interesting, well-constructed one: As Atang gets a chance to experience his father's life, the audience learns about Lesotho. It's not a guided tour, as Atang also once called this place home and thus doesn't need to be told what an"initiation camp" is. The audience gets the idea in most cases. Some viewers may have an issue with the way Atang always seems to find trouble whenever he scoffs at local beliefs and traditions; as much as this is a good way to connect him to the land as part of the narrative, Mudge shies away from confronting that it's this sort of adherence to superstition that allows Dineo's father (Jerry Mofokeng) to be generally horrible where her AIDS-afflicted sister is concerned.

That bit of the story - really, anything that puts Atang and Dineo together - brings out the best in the cast. I suspect that many in the Sotho-speaking cast are either non-actors or doing their first film work, and sometimes the result is a bit stiff. For example, Zenzo Ngqobe gets what Atang is feeling across naturally when doing something or having a conversation, but when he is told to just stand, stare, and look defiant, it looks a bit overdone. Nozipho Nkelemba is a very nice contrast, though, capturing Dineo's definite pride in herself and her home and a lingering fondness for Atang but also a stubborn frustration at how her father treats the women of the family. Jerry Mofokeng is eventually fairly arresting as that father, giving the sort of performance that initially looks like he just decided to try acting that morning but gets smoother as the movie goes on, so that by the end, the remembered lack of artifice makes everything he does more intense. Lebohang Ntsane, despite being the youngest of the co-stars, is somehow often the most assured, and make a fine foil for Ngqobe.

The way everybody seems to solidify over the course of the film makes me wonder if it was shot in sequence or at least relatively close to chronologically; it's certainly got the sort of episodic, non-backtracking structure where that would make some sense. It's a no-frills but nice-looking picture; Mudge and cinematographer Carlos Carvalho don't give the audience many shots that are obviously meant to impress with the majesty of Africa, but they create some impressive moments and generally at least create the impression that we are seeing this place as it is.

"The Forgotten Kingdom" is kind of rough in places; it's an imperfect script shot under some challenging conditions, and doesn't always rise above either. It doors rise high enough that those who watch movies in part out of curiosity about other places and the lives of those who call them home will want to give it a look, as we don't get many chances to check in on this corner of Africa.

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