Without wishing to do that thing of lazily lumping disparate screen depictions of LGBT romance together (“It’s the ‘insert country or region’ Brokeback Mountain!”), it really has been quite a 12 months or so for complex gay tales shot in striking rural locations. Call Me By Your Name became both a quadruple Oscar nominee and unstoppable GIF factory, God’s Own Country scooped a Berlin jury prize, and now, here is lyrical, bold South African breakthrough The Wound.
Greeted with controversy upon its native release (there were protests outside cinemas and the film was even given a flatly absurd ‘hardcore pornography’ classification), it manages to wrap urgent questions about African masculinity in a nuanced, achingly human tale. We enter the story through Xolani (South African singer-turned-utterly-magnetic-actor Nakhane Touré): a quiet, secretly gay Queenstown factory worker who – as in previous years – will be one of the guides, or ‘caregivers’, on a sacred Xhosa coming-of-age ritual involving ceremonial body paint, a pilgrimage to the mountains and, as per the film’s title, a wince-inducing piece of anaesthetic-free circumcision.
This year, as well as his usual brusque sexual encounters with a volatile fellow guide, Xolani has been asked to pay special attention to Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini): a privileged and precocious young gay man from Johannesburg. That the shared experience of these three men proves significant over the course of the retreat is not especially surprising. But the manner in which it all plays out – with defiant, progressive Kwanda occasionally flipping the power balance on taciturn Xolani – is by turns provocative and tender, heart-wrenching and thrillingly unpredictable. Yes, there’s perhaps a blunt directness to The Wound’s symbolism. But first-time director and co-writer John Trengove teases stunning performances from the cast. And it all builds to an indelible, brutal conclusion.