AIFF 2013: “The Forgotten Kingdom” Review – by Daniel Rester

The Forgotten Kingdom Review

by Daniel Rester

            The Forgotten Kingdom is the feature film debut of director Andrew Mudge, and it had its world premiere at the 12th Annual Ashland Independent Film Festival. The movie went on to win the John C. Schweiger Audience Award: Best Feature at the festival, and deservedly so. Mudge is a real talent, and Kingdom is a remarkable film.

            The film takes place in southern part of Africa. The main character, Atang (Zenzo Ngqobe), is a young man who leaves his life in Johannesburg in order to return to his quiet homeland of Lesotho. The reason: he must bury his father in the village where they used to live. While in Lesotho, Atang runs into Dineo (Nozipho Nkelemba), a young school teacher who was  a childhood friend of Atang’s. The two quickly connect but Dineo moves away with her father and sick sister. Learning of this, Atang sets out — with the help of an unnamed boy (Lebohang Ntsane) – to find Dineo and tell her his true feelings for her.

            Kingdom is a love story told in the classical mode, but it contains strands of many other sorts of filmmaking styles and narrative ideas. Such mixes in presenting the story keeps the film feeling fresh at every turn. For instance, the opening of Kingdom captures the streets of Johannesburg in a way that made me think of City of God (2002) – which is far from a bad comparison. The film then has its moments in the more peaceful lands of Lesotho, with a blossoming love between Atang and Dineo and the young man connecting to his feelings toward his father. It also covers such topics as AIDS, unwanted marriage, connection to the land, and wandering children. Kingdom also has romantic and almost mythological qualities at times in presenting Atang’s journey, with him and the unnamed boy traveling across open lands and meeting various people along the way. These particular scenes are given a more epic treatment, aided by heavenly John Barry-esque music created by Robert Miller.

            While Mudge’s film handles a lot of themes and presentation touches, it never comes across as overly-ambitious or heavy-handed. The script allows everything to flow in a simple and kind manner, with emotion coming through in an earned way (including a part that presents a memorable story about a moth and a fire). The film also never resorts to Disneyfication when it comes to displaying Africa but instead portrays the land in honest and beautiful ways. Mudge and cinematographer Carlos Carvalho manage to make the land a character itself but also never lose track of the storytelling and main characters in doing so. Simply put, the handling of the storytelling material (with the screenplay by Mudge as well) and landscapes allows the movie to have both passion and authenticity.

            Mudge’s direction of the actors and the actors themselves are also excellent. Mudge allows each actor to have a shining moment, but never lets them “steal the show” or become melodramatic. He and the actors instead paint everything as believably human.

Ngqobe (best known for his appearances in the TV soapie Rhythm City and his supporting role in the 2005 film Tsotsi) is perfect in the lead role, expertly allowing Atang to have a full gamut of emotions and personality traits. The character is sometimes selfish and dislikable, while at other times he is funny, sweet, and worth rooting for.

Nkelemba is also very good as Dineo, a radiant and strong-willed character who cares a lot about her sister. Newcomer Ntsane, as the unnamed boy, is a real find. This child actor has perfect comedic timing, but he also handles drama expertly as well. Ntsane and Ngqobe together make for a great acting team. Also joining the cast are such veteran actors as Jerry Mofokeng (as Dineo’s father), Moshoeshoe Chabeli (as a preacher), and Lillian Dube (in a minor role), who all do well.

            Kingdom sometimes relies on conventional plot points and the romance between Atang and Dineo could have been developed a bit more, but the film is still admirably crafted. I would even go as far as to say that it is one of the better foreign language films I’ve seen in the past few years. Mudge isn’t sure as to whether or not the film will get a proper American release anytime soon, so make sure to see Kingdom if it comes your way in the festival circuits.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: A-).

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