Those who are knowledgeable of the Foreign Language Oscar race will know that there is a common theme typically expected of the South African submission. Whether it is representative of their cinematic trends or encouraged by the success of 2005’s “Tsotsi”, their films typically center around tales of urban crime. In a surprising twist, however, an entirely different setting and the theme is the focus of South Africa’s 2017 entry. In “The Wound“, John Trengove uncovers fresh perspectives on South African culture with a drama that explores class, race, and sexuality.

Set in the rural mountains of the Eastern Cape, “The Wound” depicts the coming-of-age ritual of South Africa’s Xhosa people. In keeping with ancient customs, young Xhosa men are taken to a remote location to undergo initiation rites to fully become a man. During this time, they are guided by an older caregiver, who ensures a successful outcome for their initiate.

In the case of a caregiver named Xolani (Nakhane Touré), the tradition is an annual pilgrimage which allows him a break from his mundane job as a factory worker. But one initiate named Kwanda (Niza Jay) learns the true reason behind Xolani’s faithful sojourn. As a young gay man from the affluent suburbs, Kwanda catches on quickly to Xolani’s secret relationship with another caregiver named Vija (Bongile Mantsai). And before long, tensions rise as all three men struggle to cope with the expectations of masculinity and the secrets they are forced to keep.

Though you may not guess it from the film, the repressed homosexuality isn’t the only secret these men must protect. Back in South Africa, there was much controversy not just over the taboo gay themes, but also the film’s public display of the sacred initiation rites. It even prompted the Xhosa king to call for a boycott of the film, claiming it to be insulting to their ancestors.

The mere topic of “The Wound” therefore called for bravery on the part of director John Trengove, particularly as a first-time filmmaker. And that confidence is certainly evident in Trengove’s sophisticated and vivid direction. In particular, the central romance between Vija and Xolani’s is depicted with a vigorous eroticism, which is matched by the actors’ passionate performances. Indeed, audiences will likely be reminded of “Brokeback Mountain” as the pair engages in stolen moments of intimacy amid their traditional duties.

Through the intrusion of Kwanda however, this narrative adds a fascinating dynamic that further complicates its forbidden romance. Despite their shared sexual orientation, Kwanda’s privileged background makes him an outsider to Vija and Xolani, as well as the other initiates. His presence in the mountains is conveyed as a form of gay conversion therapy, as his father hopes the initiation will cure him of his “softness.” As such, he is forced to hide his true nature in this hypermasculine environment.

Ironically, the mountains instead offer Vija and Xolani a chance to be themselves, away from the conservative restrictions of their usual daily life. And this dichotomy is one of the various juxtapositions that Trengove examines with his enlightening screenplay (co-written with Malusi Bengu and Thando Mgqolozana). Through the central trio and the supporting characters, the film inquisitively explores the conflict between both tradition and modernity as well as the underprivileged vs the affluent elite. Furthermore, it also questions the accepted definitions of masculinity and blackness.

The richly drawn characters, therefore, become bigger than themselves, representing various complex perspectives of South African society. Through Xolani’s inner turmoil and tenderness, for example, we see those who are empathetic to the plight of the oppressed yet are unwilling to challenge the establishment. Meanwhile, Vija’s brash attitude represents the toxic masculinity that perpetuates the oppression that forces him to repress his feelings. And Kwanda, on the other hand, represents a vulnerable section of society who are nevertheless selfishly comfortable in their wealth and social status.

Trengove’s problematic approach to Kwanda’s character is, unfortunately, one of the few areas where the film falters, however. There’s a naivety to his ignorance of the sociocultural limitations impacting Vija and Xolani’s closeted lifestyle that isn’t entirely convincing. Additionally, the script seems to imply that Kwanda’s difficulties in coping with the initiation rites are mainly due to the sensitivity associated with his sexuality, rather than the inherent harshness of the rituals. The other initiates are far less perturbed by this ancient tradition which involves a crude form of circumcision and recovery, accompanied by manual labor and 8 days without sleep or water. Instead, they proudly display their circumcision scars and enthusiastically dance and chant in the tribal tradition. Maybe it would have been a step too far for an already scandalous film, but one wonders the social commentary that could have been derived from a circumcision gone wrong.

Ultimately, the film’s hesitance to overtly critique the relevance and safety of this sacred practice prevents this very fine film from having an even greater impact. Indeed, it feels like a missed opportunity considering the film’s acknowledgment that many “city boys don’t come to the mountain anymore.” So while Trengove deserves to be commended for his willingness to “go there” with explicit gay sex, he is perhaps unduly polite when it comes to some of the other controversial issues. As a result, “The Wound” may not be the incendiary whistle-blower it could have been, but its engaging array of perspectives offers immense potential as a conversation starter on important topics for South Africans and the world at large.

“The Wound” releases November 11 on VOD and December 12 on DVD.

GRADE: (★★★)