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Semi-Soet

Semi-Soet

by Kavish Chetty / 09.02.2012

There’s a question that characters in romance plots rarely bother to ask themselves: incuriously, because it really wearies all the luxury and calm of their airheaded pursuits. The question is asked by Thurston Meems in The Marriage Plot (by Eugenides): “a sly-looking boy with short, gelled hair. His eyebrowlessness, along with his pale complexion, [give] his face a superintelligent quality, like a floating, disembodied brain.” Trust a guy like this, a low-slung and pretentious semiotics undergrad to ask the question. He asks, “Would we know what love is if we hadn’t heard the word?” Is it possible, phrased differently, to experience love without a kind of cultural mainframe in which “love” has a meaning; coherence?

Let’s just ask that question now, because faced with the glut of romantic comedy out there – Semi-Soet fitting like a jigsaw-piece straight into the puzzle – we become aware that there’s a repetition, uniformity; a protocol by which all the most sincere and real of romances must ostensibly conduct themselves. We all know that romantic comedies are tilted to favour the viewing tendencies of – to phrase it charitably and economically – the more stupid of females. Deep, sublimated sexual hunger (although, sometimes, it’s brash and avowed) drives the plot, as does a certain quilt-work of dreams: full-blooded, earthy romance is no longer the exclusive right of the princess and the ponce; romance works in mysterious ways; romance completes the alchemical yin-yang, fills that sullen void in your chest – you know, the void both produced and sated by consumerism.

Semi-Soet

Semi-Soet is actually a wholly appropriate self-referential title, although possibly – given the critical spin I’m about to give it – it wasn’t intended. In the logic of the film, “semi-soet” (meaning semi-sweet) name-checks the fact that much of the action is centered on a wine-farm. But from the perspective of the critic, semi-sweet just suggests that this film isn’t quite as sweet as it hopes. Parts are definitely sweet, please don’t mistake me. As far as the romantic-comedy genre goes (I cannot, I hope you will forgive me, permit myself to seriously write “rom-com”: that would be the final dreaded capitulation), the film is slick, on-target, cute, funny. But, of course, I append those four superlatives imagining the likely opinion of someone who has been systemically oppressed throughout history to believe that the highest station in life is to get married and launch a few neonates out into the world at large.

The taste is a little more acrid at certain moments of inquiry. This film is generically lame, inasmuch as most romantic comedies are just the reductive fantasies of easily-amused women in thrall to social dogma. And it’s also part of a cultural onslaught that seeks to “genericise” (so to speak) the world – to create a world in its own image. What I mean by this, is that impressionable young lasses lap at this milk and it corrodes their brains. They then stagger out of the cinema re-primed like droids programmed by the cheap platitudes of Hollywood. I mean this critically: Semi-Soet is like The Devil Wears Prada of Afrikaans romantic comedies! (Incidentally, they’re welcome to use that as a promotional blurb on the poster, if they can be bothered – with the exclamation mark and everything; I’m being generous, just giving back for the two hours’ of anaesthesia this film put me through.)

Semi-Soet

Is it even necessary to get your narrative exposition on in film criticism, anymore? We could plot a graph here, or hastily scribble a diagram – all these films have almost exactly the same plot, they switch out the surface elements to create the illusion they’ve done any work whatsoever. (Scriptwriters are basically copywriters now, flogging junk to a doped population. Both parties are laughing themselves to sleep at night, laughing all the way to the psychoanalyst’s couch when they suffer a sudden moral apoplexy about their poisonous role in modern life). Stated abstractly, Semi-Soet goes like this: attractive single girl; a love candidate she doesn’t like at first; they fall in love through all their tribulations; she discovers he lied about his real identity; they break up; they sob and retreat, she into frozen yoghurt and chocolate, he into hardcore business propositions, ‘cause hell he be such a man; they realise they love each other; dramatic avowals of love; kissing and credits. I’m surprised Jane Austen wasn’t given writing credits, because she wrote this film two hundred years ago, only she called it Pride and Prejudice.

Okay, let’s flesh up all this bone-work. Jaci is a single workaholic, a strong independent woman (you can almost hear Destiny’s Child singing “throw your hands up at me” as she closes a business deal in the film’s opening scene). She’s trying to get a new contract with the Vrede and Lust winery. A notorious capitalist is trying to muscle out the company she works for, and this new contract is her only hope to give them some staying power. Problem is this: the guy who runs Vrede and Lust is an old, conservative “family-man” kind of dude and he would never suffer the imperiousness of a female representative who didn’t have a partner! I mean, Jesus Christ, no woman should be single. They clearly all need a phallus in their lives and to imagine a young woman without one – well, this is just sacrilege, an assault on the holy nuclear family. So, Jaci plans to hire a model to act as her boyfriend, to help placate the old bastard and win the contract. In some sort of confusion that you can spot coming from fifty furlongs, however, she ends up confusing the notorious capitalist mentioned above – the handsome J.P. – as her model and ends up taking him with on a weekend to the Vrede and Lust wine farms.

Trust me, although I might not have done it linguistic justice in the paragraph above, there is something catastrophically, cyclonically unreal about this premise. I’ll explain this through the use of the interrogative. This owner of Vrede and Lust: what’s his story? Is he a winemaker or a social engineer? What in the eff does a woman having a boyfriend have to do with her ability to represent his company? Which serious owner of such a vast and profitable business would dare such an intrusion into the private sphere? And does he hope – as he appears to from several shots – that if this couple drape their lips over each others’ faces, this is somehow a reckonable signifier of their enduring love and desire to re-populate the world with little shits just like them? This film isn’t normal. The engine of the plot is illogic. The world in which this thing takes place is a convenient confection, designed to cover up a little laziness on the part of the writers.

Not so fast, there’s a final qualifier. Something which I almost ritualistically refuse to do is meet cinema on the terms it supplies. What this means in cases like Semi-Soet is that you lower the bar, dumb down the vocabulary, aim for the common denominator: in short, you recognise with condescension that this film is part of a sadly quite anti-intellectual culture, and give it a pardon on those grounds. Well, I want to state explicitly, that if I played that game, I would have no choice but to remark that Semi-Soet is good; great even. If you’re a woman who spends most of her life “lark not in an intellectual mood ‘n shit” you are going to love this. But, I’m not going to allow that lassitude so instead I conclude the film isn’t good; it’s generic and obvious, more papsak than Bordeaux. It’s a film you’ve seen so many times in your life that you misrecognise it as reality. Here’s another unrealistic-expectation generator for young women, a purveyor of mock-romance marketed as the real thing, the ultimately desirable thing to complete you. This is another consumerism of romance – human emotion captured and made marketable by boring status-quo film-makers.

*Semi-Soet opens in theatres across Mzansi on Friday 17 February 2012.

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RESPONSES (26)
  1. Kavish says:

    Note: I wrote this in November last year, after the media screening. Unless I slip into abject poverty and need to whore myself out desperately for cash (a likely reality), I won’t be reviewing anymore of these obvious/irrelevant genre pictures this year. They produce such generic criticism.

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  2. die mantis van Atlantis says:

    “Something which I almost ritualistically refuse to do is meet cinema on the terms it supplies.” this is an illuminating remark that is entirely justifiable in the context of this film, but more broadly speaking it is also incredibly sad.

    Is it possible to fully appreciate a great work of art’s merits without meeting it on its own terms? Do great movies (and music and sculpture and…) not set themselves apart from the fold precisely because they transport and transpose our consciousness into a zone that was not previously the accepted framework of consumption and appreciation?

    All this makes me wonder whether Kavish gets to watch and review enough great cinema, either contemporary stuff or the classics? Is he really that cinematically literate or is the medium just a convenient template for him to drape over his very astute observations about humanity?

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  3. Kavish says:

    @ mantis

    I’m just a closet asshole with opinions. But thanks for the interesting comment.

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  4. Greg Rossouw says:

    Kavish is a closet asshole and he’s just had all his furniture repossessed.

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  5. Andy says:

    did Greg Rossouw work on this movie?

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  6. Anonymous says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with your generic criticisms, but take it easy on the women bashing.

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  7. Bigbadbob says:

    To summarize then: Romantic comedy is a low brow genre and should be avoided by very clever people.

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  8. Maranga says:

    @bigbadbob

    Nice attempt, but I think you’ve missed the point. It’s more that these kinds of films promote unrealistic attitudes about romance, are part of a wider anti-intellectual culture that keep people dumbed down. And, of course, it’s another clunker of an SA film.

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  9. zappablaster says:

    @Maranga – When exactly did this “wider anti-intellectual culture that keep people dumbed down” start? “Low art” has been around forever, and the very distinction between low and high art has been radically re-appraised by “intellectual” professionals for decades already (even Adorno, basher of jazz and other popular art forms, was to a degree consistent in subjecting exclusivist so-called “high art” to his critique of the “culture industry”…). Very many critically lauded “art-house” films follow, in the final analysis, the same logic around romance and emotional resolution, but because they are dressed up in different stylistic codes, or do also comment or ask further questions about the state of the world, or cover psychological needs with irony, this element is palatable for an “intellectual” audience… Would SLUMDOG MILLIONNAIRE qualify for realistic attitudes about romance, for example? Perhaps one should let people enjoy watching what they like and not dictate what dumbs them down and what edifies them…

    PS I trust that you have seen the film before saying that “of course, it’s another clunker of an [sic] SA film”… in fact, for the number of films that are produced every year in this country, we actually do have a sizeable percentage of at least mediocre-to-reasonably-good films, which is not the case with most countries that have more developed film industries…

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  10. Maranga says:

    Hi zappablaster,

    You talk about the praiseworthy qualities of low art – referencing Adorno etc. – generally. But can the same be said of this film particularly? have you seen it?

    Whether low-art has been around for ages or not perhaps isn’t the point. Perhaps it needs to be investigation for the assumptions it makes, as much as I should be investigated for my own. So thanks for doing that.

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  11. Uh-well? says:

    So Zappablaster, let me guess. Tertiary education, well-read, got involved in movies and media at an early age, only to learn what it takes to “survive” in that “industry” in the cultural wasteland that is South Africa while trying to raise a family in a respectable neighborhood? Twilight years being spent defending the “industry” along pragmatic yet polysyllabic grounds to justifiy career decision and karmic compromises thus far?

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  12. Angella says:

    ….stagger out of the cinema re-primed like droids programmed by the cheap platitudes of Hollywood….

    so totally disappointing…

    trivial americanized pulp ….

    really SA?…

    pah!

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  13. Kian says:

    Third Afrikaans movie being bashed by mr Chetty. Trick question. If you hate the genre that much why do you keep on reviewing it? Don’t you have other things to do? And dear MAHALA: Mr Chetty and Afrikaans movies are not a good match. Its like asking Dan Roodt to review a Bollywood movie. Maybe not a good idea.

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  14. Kian says:

    Dear MAHALA: Mr Chetty and Afrikaans movies are not a good match.Third Afrikaans movie being bashed by him. Its like asking Dan Roodt to review a Bollywood movie. Maybe not a good idea. Give the kid other things to review please.

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  15. Roger Young says:

    @Kian

    Chetty reviews every South African movie that comes out, that’s his job. If you no longer want to read Chetty review’s of better films then ask the producers of these films to stop making such awful crap.

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  16. Kian says:

    Mr Chetty reviews Semi Soet as if it was meant to be an art movie. The intention clearly wasn’t high art but light entertainment. The high art bit is rather a reflection on the aspirations of his ego. Thats way he writes this awful crap. It simply becomes a tool for him to show off the self.

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  17. Piranha says:

    @Kian

    Actually, the last paragraph of this review, if you bothered to read the whole thing, seems to answer your question. You think Chetty/Mahala attacks Afrikaans films because they’re Afrikaans. Is it not possible they’re being attacked because they’re crap? I, for one, have seen (most of) this film (walked out, actually).

    Mahala is not the Cape Argus. They don’t do 450 word blurbs that feature insights like “if you like Notting Hill you’ll like this!”

    Also, you don’t seem to think it’s possible to review a film from any perspective other than the one that film comes from. If that was true, criticism would have no purpose – because all you could say negatively about a film like this is, “oh the music isn’t so good, some parts aren’t funny”. You would have curtailed all the other criticism that is apparently “too high” for the film. Like it or not, Semi-Soet and its friends are being made in South Africa and are determinants of the state of SA cinema. If sites like Mahala don’t show off how completely soulless, consumerist-driven and generic these films are, all the words out there are just going to be written in its defence. And having seen the film, again – that would be ridiculous.

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  18. Ms. Pacman says:

    Why is it, Kian, that any film that is remotely sophisticated is called “high art” so disparagingly by people like you? The Descendants – the new film with George Clooney – is breezy, accessible, fun, funny, full of enduring human themes and appeals to to a wide variety of audience. Is that “high art?” People need to accept that entertainment and anti-intellectual crap are not one and the same .

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  19. Roger says:

    Saw this at the Jozi Film Fest, loved it.

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  20. zappablaster says:

    @Uh-well… Sorry, but you have it soooo wrong on almost every patronizing point… No family, not striking it rich, and never compromised on my own films, thanks, most of which have done well in large part, I believe, exactly because of that… Just find it very annoying when people (and usually, in my experience, those who have never made their own films) can take the higher moral and cultural ground in such a glib manner… As to SA films: of course the “local is lekker” tendency has in some ways lowered expectations in the country for a long time… but apart from films finding their own markets anyway, let’s see… SKOONHEID, SHIRLEY ADAMS, THE SILVER FEZ, AMANDLA!, KING NAKI, CONVERSATIONS ON A SUNDAY AFTERNOON, WA’N’WINA, STORY OF A BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY, FORERUNNERS (perhaps even U-CARMEN E-KHAYELITSHA, DISTRICT 9, TENGERS)… all part of the same cultural wasteland you describe? SA film is in the healthiest state it has been for a few decades right now, even with films appearing that you (and I) do not like, and even with it still being hip for people like yourself to knock it at every opportunity…

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  21. anonymous says:

    loved it. they took a step forward and you could atleast be man enough to admit they put fuckin’ great effort in to producing this film. i hope they kick ass at the box office. it’s an absolute light entertainment film, and they did so well. the first afrikaans film i am truly proud of. instead of shooting south african film down, give it a chance to grow. you’re being a prick. and nothing about your journalism is objective..which means your missing the point.

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  22. E2 says:

    I LOVED this movie!!! no matta what that stupid revue said!SO what these days romantic comedies are a bit cliche. I LUV it! and easy on the swear words, dude.

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  23. V says:

    I am afraid my eyes started to glaze over at paragraph 2 and I stopped reading at paragraph 4. Anyone that wants to watch this movie and then write a near novel because it’s not ‘High Art’ should seriously look for something else to do with their time.

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  24. Craig says:

    Dear Mrs Chetty.. Fvck you!!!!! I enjoyed the movie and you are no critic. So don’t bother to review movies because your comments sink.

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  25. T says:

    While I do believe many people are allowed to have their own opinions. Blatantly insulting the movie as well as most females is crossing the line. I enjoyed the movie quite a lot an I believe that it is the first afrikaans movie I’ve enjoyed. Next time you review a film stick to the matter at hand without insulting probably most of humankind.

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  26. Marlys says:

    I like reading a post that can make men and women think.

    Also, many thanks for allowing for me to comment!

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    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

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