Sunday 5 March 2006

Tsotsi (2005) - ickleReview (cinema)

South African film about a young black man called Tsotsi ("Thug") who lives in the townships of Johannesburg. He and his mates, Butcher, Boston, and Aap, take the train into town where they mug rich people to earn a living. Their lives are violent, their murders unforgiving. Boston, drunk and disturbed by their last job, has a go at Tsotsi for his lack of "decency", hits a raw nerve when he asks about Tsotsi's mother and father, and whether he would hurt a dog that way, and receives a beating for his troubles. Tsotsi runs away and, in desperation to shelter from a rain storm, hijacks a car in a rich black suburb and shoots the female driver when she tries to stop him outside her home. In the back seat he discovers something that will change his life.

Tsotsi's real name, we learn in flashbacks, is David; but no one knows this. He ran away from home as a boy, away from a sick mother and a violent, drunken father. He lived in unused concrete water pipes with a group of other vagrant kids in the wasteland between city and township. His only family now are the "brothers" of his gang whom has found on the streets, but he begins to turn against them and his old way of life when he has to live up to his responsibilities. He begins to make amends for his own misdeeds and the iniquities of his father.

The parallels in the story turn it into a sort of parable, surprisingly uplifting, delicately ambiguous. Gavin Hood directs scenes drawn out on the wrack of tension, close to the breaking point of tragedy.

The characters speak a type of pidgin language with English and (I think) Afrikaans influences. One senses the subtitles dilute some of its flavour so that their words seem not always to fit their emotions. (South Africa has, I think, around 25 official languages.)

The look and feel of the film is reminiscent of Guy Ritchie (lighting, close-ups) and City of God (gangland shanty towns). The long shots of the wooden shacks look unreal, smoke rising in the morning light as if designed for a movie set. The township has an odd semi-prosperity: they have running water and the insides of their homes look comfortable. There is a second-hand (stolen) car dealership and a night-life of bars and dice.

It's unusual to see these images on our screens and important that we do. I expected that Jo'burg's violent crimes would be black on white; but here they are black on black - it's prosperity that counts, not race. The only prominent white character in the film is the cop who chases Tsotsi, miraculously tracking him down in the chaos of the township.

Nugget: in my synopsis I've deliberately omitted one very important detail, but I think it's better to let the film tell it's own story, rather than you read it here in advance.

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