Four Corners, the latest offering by acclaimed South African director Ian Gabriel, manages to obtain a position both near and far from the social reality it depicts. Its opening scenes invoke and portend a seemingly inescapable regression into psychic and social catastrophe where daily life is arduous and uncompromising.
It is a film about the culture of gangsterism on the Cape Flats of Cape Town and the violence it wreaks on the young, the innocent and the defenceless. It lays bare for the viewer the inner workings of the 28s and the 26s, gangs where the competitors and aggressors militate against each other in the hopes of winning prestige, territory and the illicit bounty of a seething drug trade.
Despite exuding a cinematic slickness rarely found in local productions, this film trucks on the contiki cultural capital of South African realities, exporting its wares to consumers in far-off places dying to lay their hands on the latest purchasable, modish thing. This intent is evident in its paranoid obedience to the archetypal, perhaps stereotypical, genre traits characteristic of the majority of Hollywood’s output. It squeezes a particular social experience into a plot structure composed of the debris and pulp of mainstream, and most importantly non-South African, cinematic convention.
The early scenes stage the film as a coming of age story of a young, parentless boy, Ricardo (Jezriel Skei), enamoured with chess and desperately trying to resist gang conscription; and the redemption tale of a former member of the 28s, Farakhan (Brendon Daniels), who, upon his release from the clutches of Pollsmoor prison, seeks a violence-free new life and absolution, by reconciling with his estranged child. We’ve encountered these moves before and will meet them again with tidal regularity. If the will to formally pre-package the content of the film ended there, it could almost be forgiven. Yet, this thematic straitjacketing does not stop. In fact it appears to take up most of the film’s generative energy. It is bullishly obsessed with quilting a fusty cardigan out of an array of dusty and irreconcilable genres.
A cursory inspection registers an oh-so-obvious, meaty-palmed symbolism: at one point Ricardo, on the brink of becoming a lackey for the 26s, is framed below “bad boy” graffiti inscribed on a crumbling wall; the unlikely and overweening love story which transcends the chasm of class dissonance and cultural difference; a who-dunnit style thriller wholly unnecessary to the logic of the plot; and a ballistic, belligerent action sequence worthy of a Bruce Willis film.
The obvious absence of irony, registered in the oft risible, always plain dialogue, eliminates any mountable defence premised on the film harbouring meta-reflective aspirations. And why would it want this for itself when the social arrangement it has chosen to explore pulses with unprecedented cinematic possibility? The rare filmic opportunity to find new ways of telling a story rich with the potential for substantive social critique gives way to depthless pastiche.
The most disconcerting aspect of all is that South African characters are denied a voice, they do not emerge. A sense of characterological idiosyncrasy, which could have reflected the anger, anguish, and frustration ceaselessly regenerating from within the pathological and ancestral cycle of gang life sustained by a deeply unequal society, is muted by compulsive genre box-ticking. The cost of the sacrifice is immense. The four protagonists of this multi-pronged narrative – Ricardo, Farakhan, Leila and Tito – are nothing more than marmoreal ciphers for a host of shop-worn tropes. If any of the characters are compelling, it is not those who display a dissatisfaction with gang life but those who relish it. This may be fine for an entertainment hungry audience whose reality is far from that of the Cape gangs, but surely glamourising violence and abuse is worth worrying about if the audience lives within that malaise or within its grasp?
Despite all this, it is a film worth watching, for this reviewer anyway. It throws into sharp relief the magnetic pull of market forces, exhibiting how local narratives are made to depend for their economic, and hence aesthetic, legitimacy on a voracious, consumerist and obtrusive sensibility articulated elsewhere, claiming sovereignty everywhere.