By Alexia Evripidou
Hard hitting, intense graphic violence and a dash of sensationalism. Zulu is not a film to sit and watch with kids, cradling buckets of popcorn and cans of pop. If you like being visually challenged and emotionally disturbed, then this is the film for you. Breaking into what I presume to be Afrikaans dialects, Zulu defines itself as a police crime thriller, though I would argue borders onto horror, it’s certainly at times bloody enough for that sort of movie. Directed by its co-producer Jérôme Salle, Zulu was selected as the closing film at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
Set against the breathtaking backdrops of Cape Town, South Africa, an investigation team of detectives including Brian Epkeen (Orlando Bloom) and Captain Ali Sokhela (Forest Whitaker) are called upon to look into the death of a badly beaten white girl from the posh part of town. An incredibly dark and bleak outlook on the struggle to live in a post apartheid South Africa ensues as the plot deepens and unfolds into an ‘ethnic cleansing’ street drug drama, savagely killing children and adults alike.
Ali, a strong man of few but meaningful words, has seen his fair share of injustice growing up during the apartheid. Experiencing the viciousness personally, he narrowly escaped murder as a child by those at war with Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. Only him and his adored mother survived, but the scars are etched into his every calm and reasonable move.
Brian is your typical washed out cop: alcoholic, scruffy, poor, aggressive, a bad father, a good womaniser and every other cliché you would expect. Unfortunately, Brian’s character stays that way, without developing throughout the picture. When he is not drunk or having sex with nameless women, he is spending far too much time arguing with his ex-wife and playing the neglectful dad to his unconvincing teenage son.
On discovering the young woman had ample amounts of a new drug in her system, the detectives pursue a cartel and its killer synthetic drug; enter into a new war that’s spilling blood on the streets of both the slums and South Africa’s upper class society.
With its numerous scenes of gang warfare, torture, shootings and stabbings, plus the odd severed body part thrown in for good measure, Zulu muscles a whirlwind of violence that is both a mixture of the grim reality for some and the glorified excess of imagination.
Horrific scenes of children under the influence of the drug tear at each other. This is repeated with the close up scenes of the laboratory rats, shredding and eating each others flesh. Don’t eat your kebab before this. The unpleasantness and general misery can be on the overwhelming side. Salle, we get it. Life is tough and people are mean.
Aside from the gruesome nature of the murders, it’s never long before a normal scene erupts into shocking violence interspersed with character life stories, most of which are rich with back-story, giving the movie a sort of soap opera effect. People are woven in and out of the script, predominantly women, linking them to the detective’s lives but then dispensing of them without a real understanding to how they help the narrative along. These smaller story lines run throughout in between the carnage and alongside the gratuitous nudity, seemingly to create a 3D picture of the characters lives and motivations, but tend not to actually go anywhere, leaving the characters, although complex, slightly 2D.
For example we are introduced to a specific witness, who Brian inevitably beds. The difference between this woman and the countless others he befriends intimately is that we get to know her briefly, indicating a secondary character in the script. Abracadabra and she’s gone. This story line becomes both a waste of viewing and an unnecessary cost to the production company’s pocket. Consequently, a woman living in the slums that Ali visits often and pays to touch, appears to have a deeper connection with his character than the film allows us to see, which is a shame as it’s an interesting branch in this tree of complexities, that is only mildly explained later on during a flash back of what actually happened to Ali in his youth.
Zulu is a hard film to watch. It is powerful and cruel, a crime-riddled world full of tragedy and suffering. It took me several days to absorb the film, put your thick skin on and prepare yourself for the emotional onslaught if you plan on giving it a watch.