When one character asks another, at a heated moment in the unsettling coming-of-age drama The Wound, “Is it really such an important instrument?,” he’s referring to the male sexual organ. It’s a question that’s at once rhetorical and earnest, and one that finds no easy answers in this sensitive, at times harrowing, exploration of conflicting notions of masculinity. Set among the Xhosa ethnic group of South Africa during an initiation ritual that’s not supposed to be discussed, let alone depicted on the big screen, John Trengove’s first feature takes real chances, delivering a troubling portrait of the collision between communal and personal identity. Opening Berlin’s Panorama section after its premiere at Sundance, the film is certain to find further festival doors opening. 

On the literal level, the title refers to the circumcision of teen boys who participate in ukwaluka, the Xhosa tradition that separates them from their families for a period of healing, fasting and manhood-proving tests of stamina in the mountains of the Eastern Cape province. But Trengove and his co-writers, Thando Mgqolozana and Malusi Bengu, are clearly concerned with psychic and emotional damage as they zero in on the repercussions of a persistent taboo against homosexuality. 

Nakhane Touré, an openly gay South African singer, makes an impressive screen debut as Xolani, who went through the ritual years earlier and now participates as a caregiver to initiates. The chief draw for Xolani, on his annual trip to the mountains from his factory job in the city, is the chance to resume his sexual relationship with Vija (Bongile Mantsai), who is living his version of the down-low, raising a family with his wife while using Xolani for his pleasure. Trengove reveals their secret relationship with a brutal jolt, and lets Touré’s expressive face spell out Xolani’s feelings for his very occasional partner. 

For this year’s ukwaluka, Xolani’s charge is Johannesburg-raised Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini), whose father is alarmed by his “softness” and wants him toughened up — i.e., made to fit the accepted mold of masculinity. The pairing of the closeted gay man and confident adolescent places them apart from the more tradition-minded others in the group, who harass Kwanda as a “rich boy.” In his educated, privileged and relatively Westernized perspective, Kwanda is something of a surrogate for the director, who as a white filmmaker is also an outsider looking in on a cloistered cultural practice. 

Trengove builds a sense of dread among the three central characters, their wary gazes and physical provocations brimming with potential violence. Recognizing uneasy truths about themselves in one another, they’re each threatened, with Xolani caught between the swaggering Vija, whom he loves, and the defiant Kwanda, who boldly questions, and withdraws from, the rite of passage. 

As Paul Ozgur’s alert camerawork captures the dangerously shifting dynamics, the strong performances are fueled by the wild beauty of the rural setting. The province beyond the mountain is also glimpsed, in sequences that bookend the drama. In the second instance, hopes have been upended, but the world is unchanged: Nonconformity remains a sure path to peril.

 

Production company: Urucu Media
Cast: Nakhane Touré, Bongile Mantsai, Niza Jay Ncoyini, Thobani Mseleni, Gamelihle Bovana, Halalisani Bradley Cebekhulu, Inga Qwede, Sibabalwe Ngqayana, Siphosethu Ngcetane
Director: John Trengove
Screenwriters: John Trengove, Thando Mgqolozana, Malusi Bengu
Producers: Elias Ribeiro, Cait Pansegrouw
Director of photography: Paul Ozgur
Production designers: Bobby Cardoso, Solly Sithole
Costume designer: Lehasa Molloyi
Editor: Matthew Swanepoel
Composer: Joao Orecchia
Casting: Cait Pansegrouw
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Dramatic Competition)

Sales: Pyramide International

88 minutes