We’re living in a particularly rich period for South African cinema. Essentially every second week a locally-made film hits the big screen. And even though they typically can be put into three categories: crime tales, stories of self-reflection with a Karoo backdrop, or light-hearted Afrikaans romcoms, the diversity and ambition of these productions is ever growing.

That’s certainly the impression you receive from Four Corners, South Africa’s official submission in the Best Foreign Language Category of this year’s Academy Awards (it didn’t make the shortcut). This gangland drama is far from perfect – narratively, it lays on the tropes way too thickly – but it is technically polished and benefits from an overarching sense of unaffected realism.

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Despite being marketed as the tale of Ricardo (first-timer Jezriel Skei), a young chess prodigy under pressure to join a Cape Flats gang, Four Corners is actually a lot more complicated than that. The film consists of four intersecting stories. There’s Ricardo’s struggle, but there’s also a former gang leader (Brendon Daniels) freshly released from prison and trying to cut ties to his former life; there’s a young doctor (Lindiwe Matshikiza) back from London and grappling with conflicted feelings about her Cape Flats childhood; and there’s a determined cop (Abduragman Adams) on the hunt for a serial killer.

That’s a (Table) mountain of clichés right there – although the most grating of the lot is the serial killer story arc. Not that it isn’t highly pertinent in crime-addled, morally warped South Africa, but it still feels wholly imported, right down to the detective consulting with a psychic to find the missing victims. Cue eye rolls. As for the doctor’s tale, it feels wholly unnecessary and isn’t explicitly resolved.

At times it feels like Four Corners would have been stronger if it tightened its focus just to Ricardo. Because his story is the most interesting, and benefits from “will-he-won’t-he” unpredictability. Skei may not be the strongest performer onscreen – sometimes it’s hard to hear what he says – but he’s sweet and easy to root for.

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Speaking of acting, performances are one of Four Corners’ greatest strengths. Daniels looks like the soft-spoken, genial guy next door… that is until he is pushed, and proceeds to unleash the ice-cold, military-style efficiency that took him to the highest ranks of the 28’s gang. The film is stolen though by Irshaad Ally’s Gasant, the young head of the rival 26’s. Ally manages the difficult task of mixing menace, cockiness, anger and pain. And his cocktail is delicious.

Shot on location, and frequently cast from the local community, Four Corners is a fascinating look at a South African setting and macho culture that has received little to no screen time before now. The film manages to sidestep the morality tale trap, but it may have been just a bit too ambitious as to how many stories it wanted to present and satisfyingly resolve in 114 minutes.

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Last Updated: March 28, 2014

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Noelle Adams

Sometime Tomb Raider. Full-time Pop Culture fanatic and Geekaissance Woman. Most often spotted outputting Pop Culture opinion pieces, writing fanfic and original genre fare, cosplaying and bringing the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu smackdown. Editor of the Comics and Toys section.

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