Set largely in the mountainous Kingdom of Lesotho, The Forgotten Kingdom (2013) isn’t lacking for a spectacular backdrop to tell its gentle ‘hero’s journey’ tale. The vistas that dominate the film are truly spectacular and director Andrew Mudge peppers them through even the film’s city scenes like pillow shots, meaning that even in the built-up townships of Johannesburg, the country is never far from our minds. The landscape is as much a character as the young man and boy that cross through it and the specificness of the film’s setting and situation help it rise above its fairly rote story to something that remains consistently engaging.
Forced to make the journey back to rural Lesotho from Johannesburg to bury his father, Atang (Zenzo Ngqobe) is confronted by a way of life a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city. His father’s village is steeped in tradition and home to the earthy Dineo (Nozipho Nkelemba), a woman devoting her life to caring for her AIDS-striken sister, in spite of a father and community afraid of the disease. The film is at its best when dealing with the stigma around HIV/AIDS in these rural areas. Dineo laments that her sister has now been branded promiscuous and most of the village won’t have anything to do with her; so much so that their father moves them to escape the shame.
Whilst it’s keen to stress that this more traditional way of life is still superstitious, oppresses women and perpetuates dangerous attitudes towards a life-threatening epidemic, The Forgotten Kingdom also portrays it as more morally rigorous and spiritually fulfilling than city life. The meat of the film is a kind of realist pilgrim’s progress for Atang as he treks across the country after Dineo – complete with a wise-cracking orphan boy (Lebohang Ntsane) in tow – encountering people and situations that teach him valuable life lessons (one involves him thatching an old woman’s house, his dead father’s profession). Here the film is so predictable that it feels as though it’s going through the motions, all but phoning in its protagonist’s emotional arc. So few films from Africa make it over here in any major way that it’s refreshing to hear the story of another country that feels informed by it own concerns and culture. Sadly, for all its attention to detail The Forgotten Kingdom fails to find much of a voice for itself. It’s certainly a pleasant experience and the emotional beats in its final act are satisfying enough to justify the journey there, but it ultimately fails to make a lasting impression.
Adam Howard | @afahoward