Against the backdrop of a coming-of-age ritual, The Wound finds its greatest insights in contrasts between tradition and modernity. A young man undergoing the ritual is clothed in both a homespun blanket and high-end sneakers. The beauty of a sunset over the South African landscape is interrupted by a march of electrical transmission towers. The opening sequence follows lead character Xolani (Nakhane Touré) as he journeys from an industrial Johannesburg-adjacent area to the veld of his youth. Director John Trengove and cinematographer Paul Ozgur operate in an observational mode, paying more effort to capturing details than passing judgment on what they show.
And it would be easy for an outsider to pass judgment. In the Xhosa rite of ulwaluko, groups of teenage boys are roughly circumcised before spending eight days isolated on the veld, learning what it is to “be a man” as they recuperate. Xolani joins the initiates each year as a caretaker, counseling them and helping them properly care for their wounds. Gay and deeply closeted, Xolani also takes the trip as an opportunity to resume his sexual relationship with childhood friend Vija (Bongile Mantsai), another caretaker. Frustrated by his dead-end warehouse work and the pressures of Xhosa standards of masculinity, Xolani harbors a desire to run away with Vija—the most overtly romantic element in a film that maintains an emotional reserve on the same level as its tight-lipped characters. For his part, Vija, who is married to a woman and has three kids, seems to harbor no true interest in Xolani besides the carnal. One gets the sense that he participates in ulwaluko mainly to assert his own masculinity by pushing the initiates around.
Of course, all cultural standards of “proper” or “manly” behavior are in fact socially enforced posturing, and Vija’s public overcompensation is just one aspect of this that The Wound explores. (This holds true no matter what the culture in question, and Western viewers would be wise to question their own beliefs on the subject before condemning Xhosa practices as “backwards” or whatever.) The story drives around Xolani’s attempts to shepherd Kwanda (Niza Jay), a big-city boy whose father has insisted on him joining in, telling Xolani to “toughen him up.” The other boys, anonymized as a collective (the credits only refer to each as “initiate”), give Kwanda nothing but grief over his perceived effeminacy and unsuitability to roughing it. Custom is built and perpetuated by small actions that pile up, and their bullying demonstrates this in a subtle but potent manner. Xolani senses that Kwanda may also be gay, and Kwanda suspects the same in turn, but this does not act as a bonding element. It’s every man for himself, and vulnerability is a liability.
The Wound does a wonderful job of remaining understated without ever becoming muted. This is best showcased by the performances of the main trio—particularly Touré, whom you can see mentally calculating his every move so as not to raise suspicion among his peers. It’s frustrating, then, that the movie throws its instinct to downplay off a cliff literally at the last minute, ending on a twist that’s thoroughly incongruous with everything that’s come before. It’s one misstep, but a major one, and it severely unbalances the tone of the whole.
Director: John Trengove
Writers: John Trengove, Malusi Bengu, Thando Mgqolozana
Starring: Nakhane Touré, Bongile Mantsai, Niza Jay
Release Date: August 16, 2017