'Love the One You Love': Busan Review
Fraying relationships are front and center in South African filmmaker Jenna Bass’ refreshing debut
Films from South Africa that don’t deal with the country’s lingering race relations issues, rampant crime and political corruption are few and far between but one-woman show Jenna Cato Bass’ debut feature Love the One You Love does its best to steer clear of anything that topical. A standard relationship drama about the messy intersecting lives of an average couple and a single man who’s not over his last relationship, Love is refreshingly connective in its subject matter and a welcome alternative portrait of modern middle class Cape Town. Reminiscent of Miranda July were she slightly less focused (and, to be fair, far less self-indulgent) Love the One You Love could become the beneficiary of curious distributors with the last round of films from South Africa that travelled beyond the domestic market (Tsotsi, U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, Beauty) years in the rearview mirror. A strong festival life should be a given.
What is likely a tight budget is masked by Bass’ intimate, rather than irritatingly shaky, hand held camerawork and a dedication to her characters’ words and how they relate to each other. The film has more than one sequence that feels like we, as viewers, are eavesdropping as much as watching the romantic drama unfold. Leads Chi Mhende and Andile Nebulane are as handsome a pair as has hit screens anywhere in ages and they nail the ebb and flow of a couple at a crossroads and always feel natural in their roles, absolutely critical in a film where “nothing” in the traditional sense of the word really happens.
Terri (Mhende) is a phone sex operator (those still exist?) with a restless spirit toying with the idea of heading to Asia to teach English and broader her horizons. Her inability to express her affection for Sandile (Nebulane), an animal shelter worker, is the one sticking point in their otherwise happy and stable relationship. Elsewhere in the city computer technician Eugene (Louw Venter) is still pining over a failed romance, and spends a great deal of his time with his ex-girlfriend’s younger brother, Mo (Mogamat Dayaan Salie). Their paths eventually cross when a lonely Eugene calls Terri’s hotline and they make an accidental connection that transcends moaning and groaning and which eventually spills into real life.
Love the One You Love’s strengths lie in its normalcy, in the recognizably banal beats of working at a relationship and the mundane factors that can sabotage them. Bass has written fully realized characters, particularly Terri, who have flaws and hang-ups that can be frustrating but not conventionally bad. When Terri and Sandile’s friends question why they would end a good romance they’re at a loss for words; there is no hard reason for it. Less convincing is Eugene, who occasionally comes across as just mopey, though his friendship with young Mo feels genuine and sweet. The only other significant knock on the film are the out-of-place visual inter-titles and the sunny, greeting card tone of the end titles that flirt with cheapening all that came before it. Some will criticize Bass’ lack of interest in all matters black and white, but that feels progressive and contemporary rather than like avoidance. Ultimately that’s not what Love is about.
Production company: Fox Fire Films
Cast: Chi Mhende, Andile Nebulane, Louw Venter, Mogamat Dayaan Salie, Nelso Das Neves, Thenji Stemala, Mzu Ntantiso
Director: Jenna Cato Bass
Screenwriter: Jenna Cato Bass
Producer: Steven Markovitz, Jenna Cato Bass
Executive producer: Lawrence Mattis
Director of photography: Jenna Cato Bass
Production designer: Jenna Cato Bass
Editor: Jacques de Villiers, Jenna Cato Bass
Music: Ross Dorkin
World sales: Big World Cinema
No rating, 89 minutes