The Confusing Kingdom

The Forgotten Kingdom poster from Cinemafunk

By now, it’s pretty clear that Guardians of the Galaxy has “won” the summer blockbuster season in terms of what it took at the box office. That’s all fine and good, but with all the attention everybody pays to big-action-movies-based-on-brand-name-properties these days, it just feels like we’re forgetting something. There’s a whole forgotten… land? Territory? Country? What is the word I’m looking for… of independent films that is still churning out much more thoughtful fare.

In that spirit, I decided to give the multiple award winning film from writer-director Andrew Mudge (The Perfect Gooseys) a try. The Forgotten Kingdom has the distinction of being the first feature-length film set in Lesotho, a small, landlocked country surrounded entirely by South Africa. The film is also filmed in the Sotho language, a language Mudge admittedly doesn’t speak. He had to consult many Basotho locals when writing the script, not only because of the language barrier but also to make sure he got details of Sotho culture right.

The movie begins in Johannesburg, South Africa, with Atang Mokoenya (played by Zenzo Ngqobe), a young, unemployed rogue who had a falling-out with his father. When his father dies suddenly, he discovers that his father had already made arrangements and paid for a funeral service in their original hometown in Lesotho. These events lead Atang to return to Lesotho for the first time since he was a young boy. When he gets there, he meets Dineo (Nozipho Nkelemba), a childhood friend, now grown, who teaches at the local school and takes care of her sister who had fallen ill with AIDS. Atang is smitten with Dineo, but her father doesn’t trust him. Largely because, to be frank, Atang is kind of a jerk. Throughout the first half of the film, it’s pretty clear Atang only cares about himself and is full of angst.

I know, it sounds like the premise of a romantic comedy. Through his love for Dineo, he learns to be nicer, and then he wins the trust of the father. Right? Nope, the film takes a few twists and turns from there, to the point that for a while I really couldn’t tell where the story was going. I have to admit, it got me excited. That is, until the movie reaches the halfway mark, and it turns into a road trip movie.

In interviews, Mudge said he wanted the movie to showcase the beauty of Lesotho. It’s clear that the way he chose to do this was to copy Lord of the Rings: long landscape shots following the heroes riding on horseback across the country, as they go on a quest with several misadventures along the way. For me, this was where the film fell apart. It was already on shaky ground, with many sudden tonal shifts and a script that felt like it was not put together quite right. By the second half, the movie is in full-on “I’m making this up as I go along” territory, with poor pacing and a confused mess of scenes with radically different tones that don’t feel like they fit together well.

Yet… this movie has too many good points for me to write it off entirely. Ngqobe (Tsotsi, Blood Diamond, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) is a great actor, and he really sells his rogue character who learns to have a heart. Meanwhile, Nkelemba, a South African television star making her first movie appearance, clearly has it in her to be a major Hollywood superstar if given the chance. Not only are individual actors turning in great performances, there are many great individual scenes. Even toward the very end, there are truly moving scenes that show the very human drama of love, family, and determination. It’s just that those scenes are flanked by other, far inferior scenes, poor pacing, and moments that just left me confused. There were about a dozen times in this film’s 96-minute run-time that I just wanted to raise my hand and ask what was going on. I simply couldn’t follow what I was seeing at several points.

If you are the kind of person who loves to learn about Africa and African culture, you might want to check out this movie. Otherwise, I’m sorry, I don’t see why this movie won so many awards. It’s got a good premise, excellent actors, and some truly exceptional moments, but it just couldn’t stick the landing. I have to give it a 3 out of 5.

There is still time to enter to win a $25 Amazon gift card! Just follow me on Twitter (@Catflag) and leave a comment on my 200th blog post (link here). The winner will be announced September 30th.

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