“The Wound” is a conscientious first feature from South African director John Trengove that is based around a male initiation ritual in the Xhosa culture called “ukwaluka,” which begins with circumcision and then moves on to an endurance test in the wilderness. This movie sensitively attempts to tell a story that becomes a kind of love triangle set against a milieu that will be unfamiliar to most Western viewers.
The first image in “The Wound” is a waterfall, and there is no sound initially until we hear the rushing of the water down into the river below. The credits play against underwater noises — as if we have fallen into the river — and when the credits are over this sound blends into the motor of a cart in a warehouse where Xolani (Nakhane Touré) works. The careful sound design in this opening will have gently symbolic implications later on.
The father of a boy named Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini) tells Xolani that his son is too soft and needs to be toughened up. Touré, who is a singer, has the kind of guarded yet helplessly present face that the camera loves, and it is clear as we watch his reactions that Xolani is conflicted about what this man is asking him to do.
Trengove films the circumcision ceremony in a discreet way, so that it’s hard to tell just what has happened until the characters reference it in dialogue later on. We see Xolani walking to a secluded building with another chaperone of the young boys named Vija (Bongile Mantsai), and Trengove films them in a doorway frame as they secretly have sex with each other.
This sex scene captures the closeness between these men, the pleasure they steal, and also their isolation from each other. Vija is married and wears a cross around his neck. He has been friends with Xolani for a long time and seems to have placed him into a compartment in his life where Xolani can be taken out and used for sex occasionally. But Xolani’s feelings go much deeper than that.
The writing in “The Wound” can be conventional and overly explanatory, but this doesn’t matter because the subject is so fresh. Trengove isn’t afraid to make Xolani unlikable; there is a scene where Xolani lays a heavy guilt trip on Vija that feels psychologically acute. Xolani says that he has stayed in a job he doesn’t like just to be near Vija, and there is an element of manipulation in the way that he explains this. Xolani is imprisoned by outdated social attitudes, and he has sunk so deeply into them that he has made a home there. He has learned to almost enjoy his unhappiness, which he uses as a weapon against Vija.
The younger Kwanda is clearly from a different generation and less self-conscious about his sexuality than Xolani and Vija. He is going through with the initiation ceremony, but he is not convinced by it as these two older men are. He talks about having an iPhone, and he goes off to listen to music in his car. As a boy who comes from money, Kwanda is also from a different social class. He doesn’t look right with the white ashes that they are made to wear on their faces and bodies and appears strikingly beautiful only when he washes the ashes off in the river.
Kwanda stares at these older men with both curiosity and righteous judgment. He is attracted to Xolani and Vija, but he is more interested in the fact that his youth and good looks give him some power over them. Speaking of Xolani, Kwanda tells Vija, “Maybe he wants me all to himself.” Kwanda can’t resist goading the older men and feeling superior.
The tensions in “The Wound” could imaginably resolve themselves in a pleasing bout of very hot and satisfying three-way sex between the main characters, but when the film reaches its climax it feels both unexpected and inevitable, like all good endings.
This is a movie that offers a glimpse into a seldom-seen world, and it is also a character study that looks deeply into the behavior of three very different men who might have loved each other under different circumstances.