Four Corners (Die Vier Hoeke): Film Review

Four Corners Still - H 2013

Four Corners Still - H 2013

An intense if somewhat overwrought foray into South African street violence.

South Africa’s foreign language Oscar hopeful focuses on four characters trying to survive in the violent suburbs outside Cape Town.

A handful of characters cross paths in the sprawling South African ghetto of Cape Flats in Four Corners (Die Vier Hoeke), director Ian Gabriel’s heartfelt and stylized coming-of-age street drama. Reminiscent of Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi, which tackled a similar milieu in Johannesburg, but enlarging its scope to cover several stories à la City of God and Amores Perros, this no-holds-barred network narrative can often feel both heavy-handed and conventional -- even if it garners points for earnestly portraying a world where violence and death seem to be part of the daily grind.

As South Africa’s official entry for the foreign language Oscar, the film could see a strong local turnout when released at home next year, while festivals will likely take notice. It’s also got enough style and polish to find overseas takers, especially among VOD outlets seeking offshore genre fare.

After a brief and bloody flash-forward, a scene in a Cape Town prison sets the stage for what follows: Two gangs -- named after numbers 28 and 26, and whose members have more tattoos than a crowded Williamsburg beer garden -- are engaged in a longstanding turf war both in and out of jail. When 28 affiliate, Farakhan (Brendon Daniels), is released, he returns to his father’s ramshackle home, quickly taking revenge on the 26-er who was living there in his absence, after which he brutally burns off his own gang tattoo with a steam iron. Talk about a statement.

Meanwhile, 13-year-old chess whiz Ricardo (Jezzriel Skei) is trying to steer clear of the 26-connected crew (named the “Americans”) that rule his neighborhood, particularly their cagey leader (Irshaad Ally), who recruits local boys to do his dirty work in exchange for wads of cash. Smart and soft-spoken, the parentless Ricardo sees chess as both a way of life and a way of getting out of the thug life, but the escalating violence resulting from Farakhan’s actions soon leaves him caught in the middle.

Two additional plotlines -- one involving a police captain (Abduragman Adams) chasing a serial killer preying on teenagers, the other dealing with a doctor (Lindiwe Matshikiza) returning home for her father’s funeral and hooking up with Farakhan in the process -- are introduced along the way, though they are less intriguing than the gangland story and add little nuance to the action. The killer plot seems especially superfluous: If kids in the Cape Flats are being gunned down in broad daylight, why add a twist involving a deranged murderer leaving behind clues from the New Testament?

Much stronger are the parallel narratives of Ricardo and Farakhan, who we soon learn are connected in ways that go beyond mere geographical proximity. Although their trajectories are somewhat telegraphed, screenwriters Terence Hammond (Last Dance) and Hofmeyr Scholtz do a good job depicting how fates in this kind of South African shantytown are at the whim of gang clashes carried across several generations, leaving both social and civil norms by the wayside.

Director Gabriel -- whose 2004 feature, Forgiveness, won prizes at the Locarno fest -- pulls out all the stylistic stops to portray the grueling realities of the Flats, with DP Vicci Turpin capturing the sprawling, dilapidated locations in slick widescreen compositions. While the eye-popping visuals are impressive at times, the filmmakers tend to overshoot certain scenes, using slow motion and other effects to portray violence that may have been all the more disturbing had it been shown unadorned.

Newcomers Skei and Daniels both offer up potent performances, with the latter particularly engaging as a man unable to escape the savage world he left behind, tattoos or not. Soundtrack by Cape Town electro musician Markus Wormstrom mixes classical compositions with catchy hip-hop beats, underscoring a street life that’s as culturally rich as it is hazardous to your health.

Production companies: Giant Films, Moonlighting Films

Cast: Brendon Daniels, Jezzriel Skei, Irshaad Ally, Lindiwe Matshikiza, Abduragman Adams

Director: Ian Gabriel

Screenwriters: Terence Hammond, Hofmeyr Scholtz, based on a story by Ian Gabriel, Hofmeyr Scholtz

Producers: Cindy Gabriel, Genevieve Hofmeyr

Director of photography: Vicci Turpin

Production designer: Chris Bass

Costume designer: Sylvia van Heerden

Music: Markus Wormstrom

Editor: Ronelle Loots

Sales agent: The Little Film Company

No rating, 119 minutes