When it comes to mainstream local releases, more often than not we’re treated to one of four types of movies: Dusty Afrikaans dramas set in the platteland starring middle-aged men in hats, rom-coms so cheesy they give lactose intolerant people queasy stomachs, political dramas about our country’s icons played by overseas actors, and slapstick comedy so puerile their “scripts” were probably scribbled on the back of public toilet cubicle doors. Cold Harbour, the debut feature film from writer-director Carey McKenzie, is none of these, and that fact alone should get your attention.

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Its unique (at least to local features) plot, dealing with abalone (perlemoen) smuggling, the Chinese triad and the corruption of heroes, should be another tick in the plus column. Combine that with a technical sophistication normally found in big Hollywood productions, atmospheric direction and a bedrock-solid cast, and Cold Harbour has the potential to be a real winner. And it almost is. Almost.

When ex-hood turned ambitious Khayelitsha cop Sizwe Miya (Tony Kgoroge) decides to claim the investigation of a dead and ritually mutilated Chinese national who has been washed up on a Cape Town beach, what he sees as a quick road to a promotion turns out to be a downward spiral of desperation and corruption as his his past and present life vie for his soul. Championing his past is Specialist (Fana Mokoena), an ex-Struggle comrade turned fat cat gangland boss who, thanks to Sizwe’s blind spot when it comes to his criminal dealings, has built up a criminal empire with tendrils everywhere. On the other side of divide stands Venske (Deon Lotz), Sizwe’s superior officer and mentor who continually cautions him about getting in too deep with this case, all while having doubts about Sizwe’s loyalties and assigning a rookie partner (Thomas Gumede) to watch his every move.

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And the further down this crooked rabbit hole Sizwe goes, the more he begins to have his own doubts about himself. Not helping matters much is Soong Mei (Yu Nan), a Chinese femme fatale sent by the criminal powers that be to clean up the whole mess. With a sensual timbre to her voice and feline grace, the award winning Nan (who you may remember from The Expendables 2) does a fantastic job as a seductress forced to play her part in this scheme. Not that she overshadows the rest of the cast, who are all possessed of a sturdy stability. In particular, Kgoroge – who was last seen as Walter Sisulu in Mandela: The Long Walk To Freedom – and Fana Mokoena – who recently rubbed some big deal shoulders with Brad Pitt in World War Z – both turn in performances that are appropriately controlled for the most part, just letting the embers of passion be glimpsed through here and there.

And “embers” is the appropriate word for this film, as it smolders more than rages. Yes, there are few moments of pulse-increasing action (one such scene sees Kgoroge tussling with real-life Muay Thai champion Quentin Chong, in a choppy edited, Bourne-lite fight scene), but for the majority of the proceedings, McKenzie keeps the pace very deliberate. Despite it’s billing, this is more noir than thriller.

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Selling that noir-ish feel is the film’s very polished visuals courtesy of cinematographer Shane Daly. Moody aerial shots of Cape Town harbour, grimly lit township scenes and stark windswept beaches give the film a deliberately washed out look, as grey and bleak as the moral tincture of our characters. Combined with a superbly understated but effective score from local muso Spoek Mothambo and composer Chris Letcher, it makes for a very sombre but arrestingly beautiful production.

At this point, you’re probably wondering, so where does the “almost” fit in? See, while Cold Harbour starts very strong and builds a solid foundation on the backs of its cast and promising premise, it begins to fumble a bit from just past the half-way mark. Characters who we hear about in foreboding awe from nearly the very start of the movie, pop in for a brisk five minutes of screen time and then are never heard from again. The potential emotional impact of one character’s death is completely undercut by the fact that besides for a single line of dialogue earlier, we would have no idea who he actually was. And while Sizwe may be lost in a tumultuous cloud of suspicion about who to trust for most of the film, it becomes painfully obvious fairly early on to everybody else, just who the black hats really are in this story.

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One or two key scenes are also clumsily handled, with actions happening just off camera – annoyingly close enough to the frame to know something has happened, but the specifics of which we now have to take a guess on. This happens most apparently (and frustratingly) in the film’s climax, where sloppy editing almost makes it feel like the camera is just lagging behind the action, leaving you to fill in the gaps with muted sound clues. The most frustrating aspect of the film’s climax though, is that it happens just when and how it does. While you still think the film is heading to an intriguing, challenging destination, it very unexpectedly takes a sho’t left and tries to tie up all the plot threads in a conveniently neat package (which isn’t all that neat, once you really look at it) and before you can say “But what about…?”, it’s BAM!, fade to black, credits roll.

While I can see some of the thought-provoking appeal of this stunted non-ending, it unfortunately leaves you more – pardon the pun – cold than introspective. And that’s a pity, because if it wasn’t for a shaky third act and few jittery story/directing choices, we could have been talking just about how great Cold Harbour is, rather than how good it almost was.

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Last Updated: July 24, 2014

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Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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