The Junk Food of Writing

Monday, March 13, 2006

Tsotsi (Hood, 2006)

Star Presley Chweneyagae steps out of the shadows to expose one of his two facial expressions.

Do not be fooled by its foreign title, nearly unpronounceable to the American tongue, Tsotsi (dubious pronunciation key: sot’see) is an accessible film, and will likely find mainstream audiences. Due to its recent Academy Award win for Best Foreign Language Film, and its shocking victory at Toronto (where it picked up the questionably illustrious People’s Choice Award), Tsotsi should entice viewers with a middlebrow sensibility. It is not difficult to discover why it has been universally embraced; it is crowd pleasing due to its sympathetic (if not simplistic) performances, sentimentality, and utter familiarity despite the distant locale. With its conventional narrative paradigm and overly humanized characters, Tsotsi may perhaps be the most affable gangster film in recent memory. No, that’s not a compliment. The film is too preoccupied with being a feel-good film about ruffian-redemption, class conflict, and poverty that it overshadows the brutal, gritty bleakness that remains in the peripheral of the wide-screen camera lens.

Tsotsi focuses directly on one of the hooligans plucked from the urban setting of Johannesburg, South Africa. After a game of dice, where the titular thug incorrectly states that 4 + 5 = 11, and a scene of unmitigated inhumanity, where he knifes a subway passenger for a few dollars with his gang-buddies, the gangsters congregate over a table of drinks at a bar. The music is thumping, the alcohol is trickling down their throats, and one of the gang members states his disgust in Tsotsi’s unapologetic aloofness to murder. Tsotsi, in his red Chuck Taylors (a sure symbol of poverty and edginess), responds to this by violently kicking him to a bloody pulp. The eponymous gangster runs from the bar and reaches an upper-middle class neighborhood. As a BMW, a sign of privilege, pulls into a driveway – Tsotsi carjacks the vehicle and shoots the middle-aged owner upon her resistance. Soon afterwards, the gurgled cooing of a toddler forces Tsotsi to turn around and discover an infant in the backseat.

‘Tsotsi,’ the Zulu word for ‘thug’ is the appellation that the protagonist has adopted. He claims to have no name from birth, immediately setting off bells indicating a boy with an oppressive past and identity problems. Oh, and the flashback within the first 15 minutes should clear up any questions about this character’s past (the flashbacks come fast and heavy-handed). Unsurprisingly, the stranded baby mirrors some of his childhood afflictions and the newborn also triggers a few repressed memories which forces Tsotsi to tear off his mask of anger and reconsider his lifestyle. Fortunately, despite the presence of a baby, the film avoids maudlin antics and cuteness exploitation.

In a recent interview with me, the gregarious Gavin Hood (director and screenwriter of Tsotsi) was comfortably sprawled out on his hotel couch – ready to talk about his film which he refers to as “a mythic, universal tale.” During the discussion he exclaimed: “You never want to bore your audience. I am a storyteller and I like to believe I have a respect for the viewer.” It is evident, however, that he does not trust that the viewer has seen many films before, or that they can form connections within the film without the film explicitly stating how everything adds up. Nevertheless, much to Mr. Hood’s credit – Tsotsi is never tedious or unentertaining, it is simply unsurprising.

Many films recently have overused a single word to make the implicit meaning within the film more obvious; I refer to this as the ‘subtextual key.’ Instead of leaving the audience to comprehend the message without any unnecessary help, the ‘subextual key’ is given to the audience multiple times to open a door which is not even locked. Just as Batman Begins did with “fear” and Munich did with “soul,” Tsotsi has found its ‘subtextual key’ in the adjective “decent.”

Even though the films attempt to accomplish different goals, the comparisons to City of God are inevitable. Essentially, Tsotsi is the humanizing of Lil Ze, the threatening and temperamental villain of Fernando Mierelles’ City of God – yet Tsotsi's main character is fundamentally absent of this daunting menace. Presley Chweneyagae, the baby-faced actor who plays Tsotsi, gives a performance which is affective – yet only contains two faces. In his “menacing” moments, he dons an eye-brow tilting glare, and in the soft scenes, he replaces his mean façade with a puppy-dog simper. In filmmaking respects, Gavin Hood is hardly a Mierelles doppelganger. Instead of capturing the milieu through a hyperkinetic documentary style similar to City of God, Hood tries to achieve a more intimate connection with the characters. His images are pristine, with the grittiness appearing in the frame – not on it. The film is indubitably well-shot, which is unsurprising since Gavin Hood has a background in stills-photography.

Despite fantastic cinematography and a few powerful moments, Tsotsi ultimately fails due to its predictable character arc. Everything is so transparently calculated; nothing is left to the viewer’s imagination and too much is revealed too early. In the closing shot of the film, the protagonist gracefully raises his arms; he is not only surrendering to the cops, but making a symbolic gesture to the purging of his previous violent life. What Tsotsi, the character and the film itself, are unaware of is that they surrendered to the audience long before this final moment.


  • That was an excellent review (though it further convinces me not to watch this movie. Seems so been there, done that).

    Question: What do some Americans find so hard about ridiculously easy-to-pronounce stuff like "Tsotsi" or "Ziyi Zhang"? No, seriously. It seemed that everyone managed to come up with a different way of butchering her name this past awards season. (Not that Ziyi can speak any English. She can't.)

    By Blogger JavierAG, at 11:56 PM  

  • Simple: most English dialects are completely devoid of an accent, so when we must read foreign names/phrases/titles, it sounds terribly flat.

    Oh, and I swear someone always pronounces Ziyi Zhang's name incorrectly because there is some game the public is not privy to. Those damn celebrities and their silly games.

    By Blogger Nick M., at 9:50 PM  

  • "Questionably illustrious" People's Choice Award? How dare you! Why, past winners have included Amelie, Whale Rider, Life is Beau-... oh wait you're right. Carry on.

    By Blogger Ali, at 2:07 PM  

  • I am at two minds about this film. I was so upset when I saw City of God on DVD that I was unable to see it when it was at the cinema so when a movie comes along that people so is comparable I feel I should rush to see it.

    However, from reading things about it it just doesn't sound as good as City of God. Hmm... nice review.

    (check out my blog, cause i'm FANTASTIC. Javier will atest to that!)

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