Atang (Zenzo Ngqobe) is a young man who lives amongst the hustle and bustle of Johannesburg in South Africa. When his estranged father becomes seriously ill, he goes to visit him and by the time he arrives he learns his father has passed away. It is now his task to bury him in the remote and mountainous region of Lesotho where Atang was born and where his father had contracted HIV. Stirred by memories of his youth, Atang falls in love with his childhood friend, Dineo (Nozipho Nkelemba), now a radiant teacher. Through Dineo, Atang becomes deeply in touch with the mystical beauty of the land and people he had long ago left behind.
Of course, there is more. Much more. I always hesitate to call a film a "surprise," but I found myself genuinely surprised by The Forgotten Kingdom's compelling story, natural and convincing performances, and immensely well done technical aspects. Writer/director Andrew Mudge creates a story that neither overly romanticizes Africa nor stereotypes it as is so common in the American media. Mudge doesn't shy away from the issue of HIV and its frequent devastation of African nations. Lesotho has the third highest incidence of HIV, but Mudge doesn't allow the nation to be simply defined by that fact alone.
There is a reverence and a sincerity and a sense of spirituality that permeates every frame of The Forgotten Kingdom, but they don't dominate the film and take away the power of its very intimate story. The cast is made up of both veteran South African performers and relative novices, a balance that helps to give the film its tremendous authenticity. We learn that Atang's father (Jerry Phele) had sent Atang into the city of Johannesburg when he became ill and it's an abandonment over which Atang continues to carry a grudge. Even at his father's funeral, Atang refuses to accept the priest's (Moshoeshoe Chabeli) words as his father is described as a "good man."
While his feelings for Dineo soften his heart, Atang returns to Johannesburg determined to make enough money to marry her. When he is finally able to return, he learns that Dineo's father (Jerry Mofokeng) has moved the family to an extremely remote region after Dineo's sister is diagnosed with HIV. Befriended by an orphan boy (Lebohang Ntsane), Atang takes a journey to reach Dineo and in the process learns the truth about his father, himself and life.
As someone who reviews at least a couple hundred films every year, each year tends to bring me a handful of films that make me grateful that I choose to focus much of my energy on independent films.
The Forgotten Kingdom is such a film, a film that breathes life and honesty and heart and gentle humor and so much more. It's a film I enjoyed and appreciated from beginning to end and a film that holds your attention and makes you feel better having watched it.
The Forgotten Kingdom has experienced quite a bit of success on the film festival circuit with Audience Award wins at Ashland Independent Film Festival, Cambridge Film Festival, Florida Film Festival, Sarasota Film Festival, Woods Hole Film Festival, and Woodstock Film Festival, the latter a film festival where it also picked up the Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature.
While Hoosier audiences, at least in this critic's estimation, still don't quite give equal footing to films with subtitles, the Heartland Film Festival audiences were raving about this indie gem of a film. As noted, The Forgotten Kingdom is filmed in the Sesotho dialect with English subtitles but, quite honestly, it didn't take long before I completely forgot about the subtitles and was absorbed in the story.
D.P. Carlos Carvalho's lensing is nothing short of extraordinary and it's practically criminal that Carvalho's name isn't mentioned alongside the year's best cinematographers. Original music by Robert Miller complements the film quite nicely and, as can't be stressed enough, Andrew Mudge has made an exceptional feature film debut.
For more information on The Forgotten Kingdom, be sure to visit the film's website linked to in the credits.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic