Florida Film Fest review: The Forgotten Kingdom
THE FORGOTTEN KINGDOM
There’s an authenticity growling beneath the picturesque surface and deceptively simple storytelling of this South African-based coming-of-age (and coping-with-mortality) story. The blank stares of protagonist Atang Mokoenya (Zenzo Ngqobe) often grow as meditatively wide as the vistas and canyons the character travels to find some sort of resolution. Emotions blend with the natural elements, words with rhythmic indigenous chants.
This world premiere of U.S.-based director Andrew Mudge’s debut feature – presented, with subtitles, in the African dialect of Sesotho – follows Mokoenya from the crime-riddled streets of Johannesburg, South Africa, to the homeland, Lesotho, from which he was plucked by his father as a young boy. Mokoenya’s father passes away in a manufacturing village, leaving his son with prepaid funeral instructions that require Mokoenya to travel back to his tribal birthplace with his body. The slow unraveling of Mokoenya’s urbanized conceits upon his arrival in Lesotho – especially upon reconnecting with a female childhood acquaintance, Dineo – creates a compelling and subtle thread of self-discovery amid displaced cultural identity.
But the deliberate lingering pauses and panoramic sweeps of the director can’t disguise the turmoil of two Africas. Mysticism clouds science (Dineo’s sister is stricken with AIDS, a fact her father chooses to literally lock away in a room), but ancient traditions concurrently weave optimism
and purpose into otherwise random occurrences. Throughout a large part of his journey (much of it on horseback), Mokoenya is guided by an orphaned boy who swears he is the “eyes of the dark clouds” that follow Mokoenya everywhere. It’s an ambitious narrative device, but Mudge balances the disbelief suspension with pervasive charm. What might have been an exercise in exploitative cultural tourism in the vein of Paul Simon’s Graceland is instead a modern parable universal in its message, but unique to its location.