Premiering today at the Seattle International Film Festival is Andrew Mudge's South African drama The Forgotten Kingdom.
The impeccably photographed Kingdom begins with its protagonist Atang (played by Tsotsi's Zenzo Ngkobe), who's walking the streets in Johannesburg, a vibrant scene which seems to have been choreographed to the local hip-hop beats and sounds.
In an early sequence in which a convenience store owner tells Atang he looks nothing like his father, except for the "anger in his eyes," we sense that a resentful Atang has been fending for himself in the South African town for some time without parental or familial guidance. After a long-due visit to his estranged father's dwelling, a neighbor tells Atang that his father had been sick and passed. Atang is now in charge of taking his father's body to his native land of Lesotho to be buried.
The drama begins to slowly unfold hereafter. Atang must return to his native land to confront his past and deal with his issues of abandonment, which stemmed from his mother dying when he was a young boy and his now deceased father sending him to live with different acquaintances. Atang looks and feels like an outsider in his native Lesotho, although he soon reconnects with Dineo (played with aplomb by Nozipho Nkelemba), an old childhood friend who lives with her father and HIV-positive sister. Conflict arises when her father gives Atang an ultimatum to pay the dowry and marry his daughter. Atang returns to Johannesburg, but soon after he has a change of heart and decides to go back to Lesotho to reunite with Dineo.
For the most part, the film plays like a quite, meditative tale, marked by compelling performances. There is a also a whimsical element permeating throughout the film. A key character at the core of Kingdom is an orphan boy (Lebehang Ntsane) who knows Atang's native land. The boy tells Atang he is "the eyes on the dark clouds following you around this country." The young boy seems possess an old soul; you wonder if he is in fact real or a mystical character. There's also supernatural elements discussed throughout. The two embark on a journey to find Dineo, who has moved to another town at the will of her father, who is ashamed of Dineo's sister's HIV prognosis.
Atang and Dineo's relationship could have definitely been more developed more; the film gears its focus to Atang's journey with the orphan boy. Towards the end, the film may become a bit predictable. Atang and Dineo's respective conflicts - Atang's issues with abandonment and Dineo's issues with her controlling father seem to have a steely resolve and closure. Don't expect any explosive, shocking or brutal scenes; it just isn't that type a film. Overall, Kingdom is more of a perceptive film, although some may find some aspects of the viewing tiresome.
However, Kingdom is a well crafted film. Mudge's direction augers some fine acting from all main characters.
Atang's Zenzo Ngkobe pulls off a powerful performance. He is a fascinating actor to watch. It will be interesting to see if he's interested in crossing over to American films, not that it would be necessary for him do so in order to showcase his obvious acting chops. Newcomers Nkelemba, who plays Dineo, and Ntsane, who plays the orphan boy, are both quite a revelation. While the pace may drag at times, the film's crisp scenery and stunning photography will transport you to its painterly landscapes. But most significantly, Kingdom's heartfelt performances and director Mudge's competent direction will keep you engaged through the duration.