Hope floats precariously in the shadowy ghetto of the Cape Flats in Ian Gabriel’s Four Corners, a gritty and cruel coming-of-age story that stylistically stalks a fistful of characters as they collide under the checker cloth of Mother Mountain. Like the winds that rage there and the two Oceans that kiss, Gabriel’s shiny gangland piece is a howling and powerful social statement that cuts deep and bleeds true. This slick and rhapsodic romp around the Cape’s badlands is delightfully dark and disturbing, but it also cups a dim flame of hope that flickers provocatively throughout.
After serving a lengthy term in South Africa’s toughest maximum security lock-up—Pollsmoor Prison in Tokai—Farakhan (Brendon Daniels) is dead set on abandoning his criminal commitments and reclaiming some gang-engorged territory for his neutral “river of peace”. This tattooed and tainted ex-con is part of the ‘28’ gangbangers which rivals the equally dangerous 26-ers; two bloody brotherhoods with inky flags staining their skin (visible markers of their allegiances) that drive their identity in this ruthless part of the province: “A man without a flag…is a man without a flag”.
Meanwhile, a 13-year-old chess whiz (Ricardo played by Jezzriel Skei) is struggling to survive on the streets without such a banner branded on him, and the youngster soon finds himself a victim of cruel circumstance as the corrosive community of thugs grab hold of his quiet innocence. These two main threads of the film are thickened with subplots involving Tito, a discerning police captain (Abduragman Adams) on the trail of a serial killer, and an expat surgeon (Lindiwie Matshikiza as Leila) back from London to sort out her deceased father’s estate.
Gabriel’s heartfelt efforts here will appeal to all those wondering what modern South African cinema really has to offer. The film’s overall presentation, score, and cinematography are crisp and inviting, and so viewers used to high-quality foreign productions will not be disappointed to find that Four Corner is a cut from quality cloth and indeed worth surrendering some of your hard-earned bucks to.
The Bottom Line
Four Corners is gripping and unsettling in its terrifying portrayal of gangland entrapment in the Cape. Like Gavin Hood’s Oscar-winning Tsotsi, Gabriel’s lens here is sharply focused on tapping into South Africa’s gang culture and the tragedy it fosters; fertile cinematic territory that frames its subject matter seriously as it tactfully scraps the monochrome underbelly of the rainbow nation and humanises the forgotten specimens found struggling there. This is a brutal cinematic event that does not discard hope for the future, but rolls up its sleeves to expose the scars needed to be acknowledged to move forward. It’s evident that a lot of research and consideration was given in portraying these troubled communities, and the film does a fantastic job of balancing its own storytelling aims with the real world streetscapes we all know about and, perhaps, shamefully fear.
The story itself is eerily entrancing and fresh, and contains a full clip of heart-pounding moments that are tantalisingly spaced—high stakes conflicts that really could have gone either way and made for thriller cinema. The two main threads (that of Ricardo struggling to avoid ghetto’s pull and Farakhan pushing that lifestyle away) empathetically drives the film home; and while both Tito and Leila’s stories were both appropriate and contemporary inclusions (i.e. as the passionate and dedicated detective and the overseas and educated expatriate returning to her roots), the film lost some of its cohesiveness in the former’s tale as a convenient red herring was loosed. This was a result of Gabriel including a truly fascinating subplot that I really wanted more of, events and characters that needed to be fleshed beyond what was presented.
Beyond presentational matters, perhaps one of hardest things I believe facing South Africa’s stuttering industry is the real reality of language(s) and our conditioned desire for familiar faces. This where Four Corner’s really won me over, because, in addition to its dark narrative concerns and alluring aesthetic arrangements, this flick was flecked with likeable, believable, and empathetic characters sprouting lines in various tongues (mixing Tsotsi taal, Cape Afrikaans, Cape English, and ‘Sabela’—a language used in gang circles) that bypassed my own consuming concerns to paint a washed-over world I had previously only a passing knowledge of. The acting was generally excellent, and I particularly enjoyed the way in which Gabriel captured the mannerisms, signs, and attitudes of these cutthroat thugs as they went about their dastardly schemes. The film also made use of a number of non-professional actors pulled from rehabilitation programs, chess clubs, and schools—a decision that enriched the film with an unavoidable sense of realism that permeated the event with pride. Such details were palpable, and made Four Corners a character-driven piece loaded with believable performances that were acoustical accompanied by local artists— resulting in a feature that looks, feels, and sounds proudly South African.
Ian Gabriel’s efforts here are a positive sign for South Africa’s film industry. It’s an honest and enticing cinematic event that I hope, and indeed encourage, South Africans to really get behind. Four Corners is clearly a product of passion and dedication, and while the film did suffer from a few narrative niggles, its polished presentation and gripping tale of gangland tragedy was masterly minded and hits home with a conviction that few are brave enough to even put in their sights—Salute!