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31 Million Reasons

by Kavish Chetty / 12.01.2012

I don’t know precisely where the artistic impulse for endless local crime fiction emerged. It’s much easier to see its dark inspiration in the seething, throbbing streets of South Africa. This place is ostensibly, in the phrase of Mike Nicol, “killer country”. Full of chaos and questless violence, it’s the kind of place where a character of his can cough out (quilled in archetypal genre language: nasty, brutish, short) “You want to kill anybody, you take them to South Africa. Bam. Sounds like it’s part of the background noise.” This character’s cynical take on post-Apartheid South Africa is vindicated a few years later by Dewani’s homicide tourism. And all the authors are marching in line, seduced by the tortures of the third world. Why? The genre is broadly patched together with a series of pulp clichés which exhaust themselves very quickly (I’m mildly elitist here). Resigning itself to an essential exoticisation of violence, the form is constrained, cut-off: much is left on the peripheries of its vision. It thrives – like Congolese thriller Viva Riva! – on an arguably defeatist premise: this country is splitting apart with bad politics, gangrenous from old wounds, and its excesses and plasma are choking up the gutters. This is reality. So let’s turn it into a funfair.

If you’ve got a basic plot – a kind of skeleton key – that’s as old as the early 20th century, how do you restore its lost vigour a hundred years later? The answer is exoticisation. You’ve got to rejig that old whore, give ‘er something special. In the case of 31 Millions Reasons, that special something could be as simple as a set of gold teeth. This film leads you through all the tourist circuits of Chatsworth – a jungleland of Injuns being nasty – and its exotic accouterments are catalogued here: quarter bunny-chow, use of the phrases “lukkar”, “fullah”, “marcher” and “bru”; mid-90s three series BMWs, and gold-toothed grins from swarthy alcoholics. This is a “classic” heist caper made available to its uniqueness through the above signifiers.

31 Million Reasons - Bang

One more tangent to surf before we get into narrative. There was a local crime drama released a couple of months ago called How To Steal 2 Million. If you want a perfect example of how generic these movies are, look at the structural similarities between them. Both have “million” in the title, immediately. Both rely on their locale to justify reigning logics of greed. (in the one, Johannesburg, which we are told is a “jungle”; in the other a Durban township) Both have morally ambiguous lead characters who live beyond the fringes of an underworld. Both lead characters drive incongruous vintage cars. Both concern men with dark pasts who want to go clean, but are lured by one final sin before they can get there. Both concern the temptation of perfect heist jobs. Both perfect heist jobs go awry. Both do not have satisfying epilogues in line for our protagonists. Both these films distinguish themselves only through tone and dress. How to Steal is serious, dimly-lit pseudo-noir set in black Jo’burg. 31 Million is off-beat and comical in an Injun suburb. (and, as an aside, is more watchable) This is the same film in two different iterations and it joins the ranks of thousands more internationally: genre swill.

Neither of these films was designed to contribute much to the state of social discourse beyond the familiar platitudes of how underworlds corrode at the moral fibre of conflicted individuals, wearying their last nerve. 31 Million is about a corrupt cop with a conscience, which places him firmly in the above territory. Leading a new recruit on the force through humid, slummy streets he says that “being from Chatsworth means never having been anywhere else.” This is merely a pinprick of wisdom – one glancing existential punch – that is elsewhere missing. These films work plot against credulity. They work against your capacity to believe through the use of dialogue without a human dimension and plot development which is so generic – so overdeployed – as to now seem unreal. (the film opens up with some bank clerk saying “sorry sir, I can’t help you” in machinic register, a line of dialogue that came straight off the heartless assembly line.) Somewhere, we all know that human life is juxtaposed in a dialectical relationship with that of the screen: it’s become as generic, a simulation of things seen and absorbed. But still, our bodies organically reject it. The familiarity, the convention, the boundedness of films like these make them seem alien.

31 Million Reasons - Pimpin'

After being told that a bank liquidation has cost him his half million rand savings, Ronnie (the lead), a corrupt cop decides to collaborate on a heist with a scumbag security guard who owes him money, and his aggressively shoot-first burly brother. Ronnie is the nicest guy in the film – surrounded by meat-heads and delinquents – so he’s the only one who keeps an off-kilter moral equilibrium: the rest are fully venal. After assembling his crew, they steal their loot. But during the getaway, they knock over a vagrant. Rather than murder him, as Ronnie’s brother wants to do, Ronnie decides to give him some marcher and tell him to shut up about the whole thing. This act of charity proves to be the major weakness in the operation, and slowly the law starts to sniff out the culprits, causing our corrupted cast to perform an ever-expanding charade of murders and cover-ups.

But there is an interruption at work before the first reel. The title is ruinous for three reasons. Firstly, it ruins the plot. Ronnie and gang (and hence the audience, as they are largely the narrators through which the plot is exposed) aren’t supposed to know that there was 31 million clams in the stolen loot, which means any possible surprise (and corresponding surge in anxiety) about this excess is spoiled pre factum. There can’t have been 31 million reasons to effect the heist, because they didn’t know there was 31 million dossier in the pay-off. And lastly, 31 million reasons implies that each single rand is reason enough to commit an egregious armed robbery. Not even in Chatsworth is one buck enough to compel larceny.

31 Million Reasons - Kiss it

Truth is, however, as a casual viewing experience 31 Million is – I say this to probable chagrin of everyone who worked on it – disappointingly watchable. It’s not cyclonically bad. It’s not interrogatively good. It’s just somewhere hanging there in the middle, a competent crime drama genre picture. The first half coasts by without thrill. But in the later stages, the thrill factor seems to make an entrance – if briefly – and things going wrong have a tension about them. There are some well-staged sequences, and the occasional flicker of a gorgeous shot. (look for the cast swathed up in the orange throb of dim lights as they crack open their ill-gotten cases) The problem with this is that South African cinema has already reached that unholy juncture: they’re all technically competent without being thematically interrogative. They’ve reached the point of being Hollywood-lite and evolution is worth aching for at the moment. The film never rises above its ambitions to play to its target audience without accepting any challenges en route. It’s executed adequately and uniformly. You get what you paid for. What you get is form: crime fiction, evacuated of political content, mute on social issues and existing to plumb the locale for disguises, covering up an essential sameness.

There is a rulebook in circulation. Anyone who is concerned about the status of cinema in this country needs to hunt down that rulebook, burst in on a directors’ dinner party and steal it. Rearrange the pages, scrawl in black ink all over all the schema and tables, or better yet – immolate the thing. Leave film-makers masterless and see what they come up with on their own. I guarantee you it won’t be bound with these slavish injunctions. 31 Million Reasons is not unique in its faults: it’s national, it’s symptomatic. I think we’ve correlatively managed to meet the Hollywood technique. (I say, correlatively, because their corpulent budgets mean their films – across the board – are going to be better than ours) Call me pleasureless, but I think we need to encourage a more intellectual cinema culture. And part of this is the self-consciousness to commit the crime-thriller genre to an examination of its place and content in South African society.

*Releases January 13, 2012.

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RESPONSES (24)
  1. cnut says:

    There’s only one thing funnier than a New Zealand accent and that’s the uniqueness of a bunch of Charo’s from Durban and it’s surrounds… for that reason (and probably that alone) this could be comedy Gold!

    P.S. Kavish pal… ‘Viva Riva ‘was absolute gob-shite in every respect… SABC 3 could do better and that’s being polite… poor recommendation indeed!

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  2. mufasa says:

    Totally agree with you. This crime cinema thing has become really overplumbed – it’s a kind of laze on the part of directors/writers. Our film-makers have technique, as you say, and they need to direct it towards more fulfilling enterprises.

    Thanks for a great review.

    And cnut – Viva Riva was fantastic. Precisely which programmes on SABC 3 are better? Be specific, please.

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  3. tuna sashimi says:

    This is a damn fine piece of cultural journalism – “they’re all technically competent without being thematically interrogative” crucially encapsulates the dilemma around the pursuit of ALL artforms in this country today – but especially music and cinema.

    And I TOTALLY support the call to burn the fucking rulebook. The problem is that those who bankroll such projects do not because they are unable to trace a path from innovation to profitability in an industry that is more cost-intensive than others.

    I would like to see Kavish review more shoestring-budget movie projects emanating from this country, even if they don’t make it onto the “big” screen or commercial DVD release. Just as is the case with innovation in local music, cinematic progress is probably happening on the extreme fringes and it is very important that journalists illuminate those works that are singular, visionary and uncompromised. It’s one thing to tell us what is perpetually wrong with mainstream work, it is another to unlock the clues to a more culturally bolstered future by digging beneath the surface.

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  4. Captain Lombard says:

    Great idea, Tuna.

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  5. SihleMthembu says:

    Man I saw a few filsm last year like The Algiers murders that left me hopeless, the predictability is nauseating

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  6. salmon maki says:

    @ tuna

    hear! hear!

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  7. Another step closer says:

    All this tough guy talk is fine, but the money thing is key: if you can prove you can do it the conventional way, you are more likely to be given the leeway by those putting up the cash to try something a little more unique…know the rules before you break them and all that. Same with an audience: if they can see you are in control in something they easily recognise, they will be more willing to go with you into new territory. The fact that this film achieves exactly what I assume it set out to do gets very little acknowledgment in this review. This film is a solid step and should be recognised as such.

    ps Viva Riva was a riot! Takes balls to go so all out and pull it off. SABC my ass.

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  8. Anonymous says:

    Filmmakers – Burn the formula and take some fucking risks.

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  9. cnut says:

    Bring back the well produced, low/med budget and moody RSA and African films across the genre’s from the Kaganoff’s to the Jacobs’ to the Hermanus’ to the Schmitz’s to the Gondo’s to the Phiri’s to the Dangarembga’s and so on and so on… or don’t!

    If Viva Riva is an indictment of African directors/film-makers then you’ve only yourself to blame for the current trends abound…

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  10. salmon rose says:

    “if they can see you are in control in something they easily recognise, they will be more willing to go with you into new territory” is precisely the last thing that we need. The luke-warm hand of tepid familiarity that massages almost anything marketed in this country has always been the problem. Real life in South Africa has been a damn side more interesting than 99.9% of the movies and music made here – it ought to be the other way around.

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  11. Rol says:

    “I just gotta pull dis one last heist/investigation/mission/tour. Then I can retire/get my wife and daughter back/clear my name and return to my home country….”

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  12. Stray Jacket Tailor says:

    South African filmmakers should kill their idols, or at least choose them wisely, they should stop watching and start reading, maybe they’ll stumble upon authentic South African stories they can adapt onto screen, before that happens they’ll keep having to live with the ‘African Quintin Tarantino’ title whenever someone fires a gun in their NFVF funded and controlled films. the Nouvelle vague, even with their understanding of form, structure, aestheticism that existed in global cinema at the time, created a cinema that was a total bastardisation of the 7th art, they were more concerned with satre, marx, kafka, dostoevsky, Marcel et al more than they were with the lumiere brother and jean coctau (sp) etc .African cinema borrowed from this, but lack of funds meant more people framed in a shot, long takes of dialoguing, their films also spoke about and to their post liberation state of affairs and had socio-political relevance, they created a new cinema. Sadly, are audiences are left with a choice of being fetishised by American/European storytellers or local filmmakers making another lock stock and a smoking barrel.

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  13. Kavish says:

    @tuna sashimi and others

    If anyone knows anything about “shoestring-budget movie projects emanating from this country”, please contact Andy and get him to let me know about them. I tend to restrict myself to reviewing what arrives in my inbox, and, of course, these are mainly mainstream releases. I’d be very happy to review the less commercial SA stuff, I’m just a little disconnected from where they are at the moment. Tjeers.

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  14. huh! says:

    Oh come on! You’re a bunch of holier-than-thou fucks. This might not be a masterpiece but it’s a solidly produced film with strong performances, good writing and a terrific opening sequences. You criticise the film for exoticising the crime flick when you should be praising it for the fact that it contentextualises the genre within an idiomatically correct landscape that is reflective of local reality. A well-written review, but do we really need all this fucking piety?

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  15. he-man says:

    huh!, I’ve seen the film and I beg to differ. The performances are weak, the dialogue is cliched (just because they use Durban slang to hide this doesn’t change the fact), and the writing isn’t particularly good either. What SA cinema needs right now is a responsive piety to encourage growth, not head-nodding and excuses and concessions. IMO.

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  16. huh! says:

    So, I presume you liked the opening sequence…

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  17. he-man says:

    The opening sequence was great. But you know, it didn’t last too long.

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  18. huh! says:

    Haha. Like I said, it’s no masterpiece. But I think it more than holds its own within the genre. It’s a mainstream crime flick and I think its pointless attacking a film for being what it is – the history of cinema is largely a history of repetition. Of course, films that move beyond that history or use it in interesting ways are always going to be more rewarding. But they’re are also alway going to be pretty rare. And it bears pointing out that when South African filmmakers do take risks, they generally get critically keelhauled anyway…just like the writing of Brandon Edmonds

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  19. creepy steve says:

    ey laarnie we gave the ou two clip and he still could’nt keep is fucking pie hole shut. i can’t wait to see this . great review disappointingly readable

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  20. miso says:

    @Kavish – ask Roger. He plans to make his own too?

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  21. Roger Young says:

    Why do you think we employed Kavish? Him reviewing my film would be a conflict of interest, so as long as we keep paying him, I’m safe.

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  22. Pascal says:

    “Neither of these films was designed to contribute much to the state of social discourse beyond the familiar platitudes of how underworlds corrode at the moral fibre of conflicted individuals, wearying their last nerve”

    – Wowza. Tough crowd.

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  23. unagi says:

    You would think that someone making a film in this country would know via actors, photographers and the like what else was being made in a low-key manner and be able to inform someone like Kavish. Just a thought.

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  24. Caitlin says:

    Honestly Kavish Chetty is such a good writer. I could read your reviews all day long

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