Review by Ed Nguyen
Stars: Presley Chweneyagae,
Terry Pheto, Kenneth Nkosi, Mothusi Magano, Zenzo Ngqobe, Zola
Director: Gavin Hood
Audio: Tsotsitaal 5.1 Dolby Digital
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1
Features: Commentary, alternate endings, deleted scenes, "The Making of Tsotsi" featurette, short film The Storekeeper, music video
Length: 94 minutes
Release Date: July 18, 2006
"Every man has a name."
Few African films ever receive significant international recognition. One recent exception, Nowhere in Africa (2002), was a wondrously inspirational Kenyan film that even won the 2002 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. However, Nowhere in Africa was really a transplanted German production in disguise. Likewise, other critically acclaimed films such as Hotel Rwanda or The Constant Gardener were just big studio productions set on the African continent.
On the other hand, 2005's Tsotsi was a more genuine African product. Set in the destitute slums of Soweto, South Africa, Tsotsi is the story of one troubled youth who has adopted the nickname of Tsotsi, loosely meaning "thug." Tsotsi's behaviors certainly justify his chosen name, and the film even opens with a robbery attempt by Tsotsi and his gang. Within the first few minutes of the film, Tsotsi runs through a virtual gamut of unconscionable offenses, including a stabbing, a beating, and a shooting. Add further kidnapping and the terrorization of a helpless cripple to Tsotsi's rap sheet as well.
In short, this kid Tsotsi is a no-good lousy punk. He is the sort of cold-blooded pond scum one hopes never to encounter in a dark alley. If provoked, Tsotsi will even beat up his own friends. Yet for all his intimidating machismo, Tsotsi is basically just another two-bit hoodlum who uses the threat of violence to conceal his own insecurities or sense of vulnerability.
Centering an entire film around such an emotionally inert and unsympathetic character as Tsotsi is a decided gamble. Undoubtedly, some repulsed viewers will reject the film simply on principle. Anyone not thoroughly revolted by the film's first half will witness a second act devoted to Tsotsi's slow realization that cruelty and impassivity are not the only available choices in life. Flashbacks reveal tragedies in Tsotsi's early youth which partially account for his present selfishness but also suggest a strong motivation for the remedial changes Tsotsi will adopt in his life. His subsequent actions are perhaps a symbolic attempt to rectify the misfortunes in his personal past. Also sprinkled throughout the film are subtle allusions to class struggles in South Africa as well as the tragic socioeconomic effects of Africa's HIV epidemic. However, for the most part, Tsotsi focuses upon the gradual transformation of its central character, suggesting that even for a thug like Tsotsi, there is always hope.
The turning point in Tsotsi's troubled existence involves a car-jacking that, as with many of his botched crimes, concludes in an unexpected manner. The consequences of this aborted theft leaves Tsotsi with a surprising burden. For perhaps the first time in years, Tsotsi begins to appreciate that life is not about being alone and struggling alone; it is about caring for others, trusting others, and frequently depending upon their help in kind. At one point, Tsotsi ponders why go on living if that means living like a crippled dog. The answer lies with intangibles - the capacity to love or to understand how to love, the privilege of feeling the warmth of the sun each day, the emotional catharsis of communal spirit itself. A handicap, either physical or emotional, need not deprive one of the capacity to live life fully.
Tsotsi remains highly flawed throughout the film, yet he is not an entirely irremediable character. Certainly, as a compassionate human, Tsotsi is a general failure. As a potential parent, he is grossly ineffective. As a friend, he is barely trustworthy. But the consequences of his actions force Tsotsi to re-evaluate his own life and purpose. That Tsotsi ultimately finds the capacity for decency, love, and sacrifice signals his readiness by the film's bittersweet conclusion to ascend to the next, more mature stage in life.
BONUS TRIVIA: Tsotsi won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
This disc of Tsotsi offers a detailed and fine transfer that preserves the gritty texture of the film. One can also sense the squalor of the tenement houses and the scorching and unremitting heat of these slums. The bit transfer rate averages around 6.5 Mbps.
Audio *** ½
Tsotsitaal, or a "thug lingo," is a patois language common to certain South African provinces. It is also the language predominately spoken in this film, although English subtitles are available. Nevertheless, this is a relatively minimalist film from a dialogue standpoint.
The musical score is a treat. Had this film been made in America, the score would have been replete with hip-hop music and gangsta rap, but as a South African film, Tsotsi instead boasts Kwaito music performed by South African musician Zola and protest singer/poet Vusi Mahlasela.
Features *** ½
"For your stolen legs..."
Eleven minutes of deleted or alternate scenes are included on this disc. There are just over three minutes of alternate endings, the first of which is quite powerful. Optional commentary by Hood explains why neither ending was ultimately used in favor of the film's more ambiguous conclusion. There are also three deleted scenes (8 min.) with optional commentary by Hood describing the various reasons why these scenes were cut. These scenes involve a confession from a secondary character, a short romantic scene, and a final scene between Tsotsi and a handicapped man. Gavin Hood also returns for an enthusiastic feature-length commentary describing the film's general background and small details fleshing out various scenes and characters in the film.
More about the film can be seen in "The Making of Tsotsi" (14 min.). This featurette traces the development of Tsotsi from its origins as a novel by playwright Athol Fugard into a film adaptation. The cast and crew also discuss the location shooting and personal experiences on the set and the various ways in which the story affected them.
There is also the Gavin Hood short film The Storekeeper (22 min.) with another optional commentary by Hood. Generally, this film follows the tragic steps taken by a shopkeeper to deal with recurrent robberies in his shop. This dialogue-free film foreshadows several stylistic elements or themes which would appear later in Tsotsi. Hood also talks about his early career creating educational dramas, early screenplays and films.
Lastly, the DVD also includes a Zola music video and a promotional ad for the film's soundtrack. Zola himself has a small role in Tsotsi.
Tsotsi is Boyz in the Hood, South African-style. It is a fine drama about second chances and discovering the capacity for basic decency and compassion within oneself.