Durban 2014 Review: COLD HARBOUR Gets Moody About Corruption

Stuart Muller, Contributor (South Africa)
Another South African film at the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) brings another challenging reflection on the country's modern identity. This time, it's Carey McKenzie tackling corruption with her moody and noirish crime thriller, Cold Harbour, which just had its world premiere at DIFF. 

This is McKenzie's first fiction feature film, her previous major production being an award-winning documentary, Original Child Bomb, which took the Grand Jury Prize at Silverdocs and Bologna Human Rights Nights. An associated short film, B Is For BOMB, won the Cannes 2006 Short Film Corner competition. 

After watching Cold Harbour I'm not surprised to learn that McKenzie has a documentary background; though fictional, the film deals very forthrightly, and even-handedly, with the complex reality of corruption in South Africa. Her empathy for, and dedication to showing, the numerous sides of the issue suggests a documentarian's sensitivities. 

When a Chinese body washes up on the beach in what looks like a gang-related turf-war murder, an ambitious policeman from Khayelitsha  sees his chance to make detective. Tony Kgoroge, fresh off his role as ANC General Walter Sisulu in Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, gives a compelling performance as Sizwe Mia, a cop hanging on to his integrity in an ether of corruption. 

Mia's friend and fellow freedom-fighter from the anti-Apartheid "struggle days", known simply as Specialist, and played by the increasingly recognizable Fana Mokoena (another alum from Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom), has chosen the gangster's path. As Specialist points out, nothing has really changed for the lowly in South Africa, and people look up to gangsters "because they have the balls to take what they want." Mia has seemingly been turning a blind eye while his friend makes a criminal success of himself, in deference to past loyalties, but as their paths diverge ever farther Mia's friendship becomes less reliable without his bought complicity. 

As Mia's investigation progresses, the full extent of the corruption is revealed and he finds himself inevitably mired in a web of collusion and crime, despite his sincere efforts to resist. Mia's police mentor is played by Deon Lotz, South Africa's pre-eminent character actor, who made his name as the main character in Oliver Hermanus' Skoonehid (Beauty), which won the Queer Palm after screening in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, and earned him Best Actor awards from The South African Film and Television Awards and The Zurich Film Festival. Rounding out the trifecta of forces striving for influence over Mia's loyalty is a mysterious Chinese woman, played by Chinese superstar Nan Yu, who represents the link between local perlemoen (abalone) poaching operations and the insatiable markets in China. 

Significantly, this is the first feature film that I know of to directly address the role of Chinese interests as an exacerbating factor in the widespread corruption and poaching within South Africa. Saying that, this film doesn't single out the Chinese, and indeed Nan Yu gives a quietly moving performance that shows her to be as trapped by and resigned to the dirty reality as everyone except our protagonist. Rather, corruption pervades all scales and demographics in the film, and the cold Cape Town harbor, which is the subject of repeated frigid and eerily beautiful aerial shots, is a symbolic portal to the wider world - the largest scale - and representative conduit of global corruption. 

Atmospherically shot by Shane Daly, Cold Harbour is perhaps the bleakest rendition of Cape Town I have ever seen. Here, though not classical black and white noir, everything is sombre and washed out with grey, almost in recognition of the intractable moral ambiguities of crime, corruption and the complex loyalties that have arisen out of South Africa's conflict-ridden past. At times the film feels lit by shadows, and Cape Town has never been more brooding and claustrophobic. 

Special mention should be made of the music by Spoek Mathambo who, working with composer Chris Letcher and featuring contributions from local talent like CHLLNGR and Theo Tuge, has produced a soundtrack that complements the bleak cinematography yet still enriches the Cape Town atmosphere. In creating the score, Letcher and Mathambo integrated their very unique sounds by sharing a rare 70s Fender FR1000 analogue spring reverb unit, making for a grittier yet less digital sound. Spoek Mathambo is a busy man at DIFF this year, also premiering Future Sounds Of Mzansi, a documentary tracing the history of electronic music in contemporary South Africa, which he co-directed with Lebogang Rasethaba.

Though I hate to nitpick a good film, I found two moments really disrupted my experience of what was an otherwise richly immersive and original South African cinematic reality. There's a pivotal confrontation at one point entailing a golf club and small boat, and it seems as though the symbolic necessity of the weapon outweighed any consideration for the kinetics of the incident. Where so much else in the film had been atmospherically, grittily real (if occasionally a bit dramatic), this fight felt maladroit, like something out of a 50s-era noir rather than a moody modern noir pastiche. Perhaps I'm being too harsh - the choice of a symbolic tussle rather than a more realistic one is surely part of that ode - but I found it a very distracting choice at a pivotal time in the film. 

The ending also threw me, so much so that I suspect there may have been a late change to the denouement. Notes from the director's own journal (shared on the film's Facebook page) allude to a difficult decision on this matter. The film seems destined to end on a fittingly sombre note, but then suddenly veers onto a decidedly more optimistic trajectory. 

While I think the message of the film with the ending as it is makes for a more balanced handling of the central issue of corruption, it felt out of sync with the movie as a whole. The film is undeniably dark so perhaps the ending was changed to soften some of this somberness, or embrace the future a little more hopefully. I felt the film was simply honest in its confrontation of an unrelentingly depressing subject, and can't help thinking it should have stayed honest right up to the end, rather than pretending to be a more optimistic tale than it really is.

Irrespective of these niggles, Cold Harbour is a bold, starkly beautiful, and thought-provoking film with plenty to savour. Carey McKenzie is clearly another name to watch, and along with Jenna Bass (whose Love The One You Love was highly praised by Twitch's Todd Brown in his review), represents the exciting new female voices taking up position behind South African cameras.
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  • I saw this yesterday as well and am a bit more mixed than you. For me the things it does well it does VERY well but those elements really threw the weaknesses into sharp contrast and made them stand out.

    The tone, for example, is excellent and struck as very much along the cold noir lines you see out of Scandinavian crime film and the photography is a BIG part of that. But for a camera crew that frames up such striking images I don't think I've ever seen a film with so many shots out of focus.

    Likewise the characters and performances. Sizwe is spectacular ... A rich and complex character driven by a really strong performance that felt to me like a slightly more contained Idris Elba in Luther. But most of the others are underdeveloped and verge into B territory. The Taiwanese gangster is a bit by the numbers vampy and the local guy ... Why on earth would Sizwe refer to someone he's known for decades and served time with after the fight against apartheid only as 'Specialist' instead of by his name? It feels like a vestige of a B script trying to be cool instead of how people would actually behave.

    And the ending, yes, is VERY abrupt and didn't make sense to me. (SPOILERS) After setting things up to eliminate the local threat - and succeeding - and arranging for the coastal police to be there to get him

  • (Hmm ... Phone is getting grumpy ... Spoiler ridden comment continues)

    Why on earth are the coastal police not raiding the boat to get the Taiwanese? The local threat is gone, there's no fear of reprisal, why not take down the foreign gangsters to secure his own position, cement the promotion and perhaps drive another one? After all, the whole message Sizwe has been receiving and succumbing to is that there's no future other than what you make for yourself. This is his chance to do so, he's already set up all the parts to do so, but he doesn't do so.

  • Stu

    I was thrown by the name "Specialist" as well, but afterwards realized it was a throwback to their freedom-fighter days. The implication is that they once worked together in the resistance movement, most likely the ANC's militant wing Umkhonto We Sizwe, and this nickname ties that past to their present. I'm also struck, as I write this, by the fact that his name is Sizwe Mia.

    I didn't notice the blurred shots, but I have to agree with you about the weaknesses of the film being glaring against so much that it gets right.

    I think my review is perhaps more glowing than I felt. I'm inclined to focus on what I like about a film, and there was much to like. What I didn't always like about it I felt was often down to the noirish choices, not the least of which is an ambivalence toward plot logic.

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