Director Jann Turner’s film, “White Wedding,” definitely has some intense aspirations. Turner wants the film to become a defining piece of South African cinema that relinquishes all past prejudices and brings all audiences together while still exerting a feeling of happiness and confidence. Luckily, the film — which stars Kenneth Nkosi, Rapulana Seiphemo, Jodie Whittaker and Zandile Mstuwana — does exactly what it sets out to do and its “Little Miss Sunshine”-esque direction is certainly pleasurable.
The plot of “White Wedding” is as follows: Ayanda (Zandile Msutwana) and Elvis (Kenneth Nkosi) are just days away from the wedding of their dreams. It features everything from the beautiful dress, flamboyant wedding planner, and a fancy venue. However, there’s something missing and that’s Elvis, who is 1,800 kilometers away with his best friend and best-man Tumi (Rapulana Seiphemo), who just happens to be a womanizing alcoholic who seems to drive his girlfriends crazy, which explains why he’s alone.
Sadly, plans don’t go according to plan as Elvis misses his bus and is forced to go on a road trip with Tumi, who doesn’t answer Elvis’ calls for hours because he got so drunk at Elvis’ bachelor party, which he also missed. But the mayhem doesn’t stop there and the duo’s trip gets derailed by faulty directions, accidents, a goat, and a bar full of racist White South Africans. Amidst all these damaging setbacks, the pair meets Rose (Jodie Whittaker), an English doctor who just found out that her best friend has been sleeping with her now ex-boyfriend. Reluctantly, they include Rose on the trip.
Meanwhile, things are falling apart on Ayanda’s front. The dress she ordered has not been paid for, she doesn’t know Elvis’ whereabouts, and her obsessed ex-boyfriend Tony (Mbulelo Grootboom) has resurfaced and is showing a questionable agenda. On top of that, Ayanda’s mother tears her between maintaining African wedding traditions and doing a glamorous European-style occasion.
According to Nkosi, Seiphemo and Turner, a lot of the scenes in the film were actually based on real-life experiences. In example, Nkosi explains that one scene, involving a sports bar, was spawned from “a very weird experience” in which Rapulana “went to the restroom in one of these towns he saw the sign: ‘White Men Only.'” Nkosi adds: “We thought, ‘What country are we in? Have things not changed?’ We felt compelled to write about it, but in a humorous way.”
The aforementioned scene is actually the most powerful in the film, because it sets the theme of inequality and racism in motion but it does it without feeling too forcefully serious and dark. The scene begins when the trio’s car breaks down, which forces Rose to bring a mechanic to the rescue, who claims to be able to have the car fixed in a matter of hours. The team makes refuge in a local sports bar, but things become heated when Tumi and Elvis are shunned for their skin color. On top of that, the bar proudly sports an apartheid flag and, unfortunately for Rose, Tumi, and Elvis, the mechanic just so happens to be part of the hateful Afrikaners and mockingly refuses to fix the car on grounds of it being “Friday night.” Frustrated, Elvis sits next to a white man in the bar, who quickly moves away. The man then spouts, “First you want to take over my country, and now you want to take over my place in the bar?” However, Elvis, who is fed up, forces the man to drink with him. Surprisingly, the two bond over marital problems and, even more unexpectedly, Elvis makes peace with the other recipients at the bar through song and dance. The man then invites the group to his house where his English wife scoffs at the fact that her husband brought home “Kaffirs” (Black South Africans) and she tells her husband that they’ll just rob and murder them and are holding Rose as a hostage.
The thing I liked about this scene is that it presented a serious problem but, just as Nkosi said, it’s done humorously and it also presents a possible solution (which is almost communistic if you look at it through a political lens — though I assume Nkosi, Seiphemo and Turner, who wrote the screenplay, did not mean for it to be analyzed in such a way). According to the film, in order to create unity, we must relate in two ways – through art and through struggles. Obviously, art doesn’t need an explanation and, in fact, “White Wedding” is a perfect example at how we use the creative medium to unify. However, the struggle part of the equation, though quite simple, does deserve explanation. Of course, the best way of examination is using already implemented examples, and one such example is Alcoholics Anonymous. Here we have a room full of drunks. That’s it, just drunks, but what do they all have in common? They all drink and they all seem to have problems because of their nasty habit. What does AA do? It connects them through their demons. This is what this one important scene says we must do to create a utopia – we must connect through the struggles of being human, as obviously we are all human beings, and there are multiple laborious challenges that we must face because of that one simple reality.
But subtext and insight are just mere creations of the chemistry between the film’s characters. Of course, the script requires a multitude of things from its actors: Elvis and Tumi must be believable best friends, Rose and Tumi must have decent romantic chemistry, and Elvis and Ayanda’s relationship must be recognizable, relatable and, of course, organic. Luckily, the actors pull all of these feats off perfectly and though the script has a rocky start — which tarnishes Elvis’ idiosyncratic personality and overall likability — it does recover excellently within a matter of 20 to 30 minutes. It seems like the norm for films is to start off fantastic and end horribly – “White Wedding” does the complete opposite, but it’s forgivable simply because the amount of tender spirit, the wit, the subtle demons that these characters display is just immaculate.
That being said, the trio’s road trip is definitely a breeding ground for clashing ideals. Tumi is womanizing and believes that lying is essential to any successful relationship — which is ironic, because he hasn’t been in a successful relationship. Rose uses her past failures with her ex-boyfriend as a gateway for cynicism and thus finds it hard to believe that Elvis is as committed to Ayanda as he says he is. Of course, Elvis is the saint of the group and though at one point of the film Tumi accuses him of sleeping with his ex-girlfriend, it turns out that those were just unwarranted insecurities.
However, I had a problem with one of the film’s characters: Tony. No, he isn’t horribly acted – he’s just never fleshed out. We are presented with the slick yet obsessed ex-boyfriend who obviously loves Ayanda and portrays his love through expensive gifts, but his real goals are never explicitly mentioned. Yes, we can assume that Tony wants Ayanda to run back to him and dump Elvis, but I like cold, hard facts – especially in a film like this where motivations are key to the plot development. Of course, this didn’t ruin the film’s appeal to me in any way, shape, or form.
It’s rare that a film makes me genuinely laugh, but “White Wedding” accomplishes just that. “White Wedding” deserves to be watched by everyone. It’s the first film that shows modern South Africa in such impeccable detail – the landscapes, the culture, and the slowly progressive attitudes — and because of that, the marriage of an audience member’s time and the film is simply one that I have no objections to.
Look for “White Wedding” in theaters starting Sept. 3.
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