Screens at CIFF: 10/12 & 10/14 & 10/18
World premiere: 12 October, 2013, Chicago International Film Festival

There is, as far as I can tell, nothing wrong with Cold Harbour (which I first saw and reviewed under its festival title, Black South-Easter) That is the good news. It's a snugly-plotted cop thriller in which the build of scene upon scene is elegantly focused on moving the protagonist from clue to clue until he eventually knows enough to start taking decisive action against the people who've been up to no good all along. On the other hand, there is, as far as I can tell, nothing within the film that answers the question, "why did this story have to be told?", and that is definitely the bad news.

I'll be the first to admit that there's a distinct feeling of cultural specificity to the film that probably makes my question moot, the thing that an American can ask only because he has no clue about the sociocultural stew that acts as the film's backdrop. You'd have to be blind, anyway, not to observe that Cold Harbour is a product of a culture with an incredibly specific mixture of races and nationalities, and these do not merely provide a backdrop for the plot to spin out against, but form the spine of what the conflict and narrative even is. There's every reason I can think of to assume that the film thus functions as a working-out of South African tensions between various in- and out-groups, with the specter of Apartheid still lurking around even after two decades. But that's still on the film to communicate, ultimately, and while there might very well be good reasons to care about the conflict presented here, they are not reasons that the film itself manages to communicate very well, and that is all we're interested in, after all.

The film opens in the wake of one of the heavy seasonal rains from which the film derives its title; this particular storm has left a dead body on a beach outside Cape Town, that of a Chinese national with flesh cut off his corpse in such a way that suggests someone was trying to disguise his connection to a Triad gang. The cop assigned to investigate the case is Sizwe (Tony Kgoroge), who has overcome a shady past to rise up through the Cape Town police force, such that he's been promised by his Afrikaner boss Venske (Deon Lotz) that pending a reasonably quick and decisive resolution to this dead gangster - a situation of considerable tension, given that the victim was a foreigner - that his promotion to full detective will be a foregone conclusion. Neither speed nor clarity are in the offing, though, and the more effort that Sizwe puts into tracking the body back through the smuggling rings operated by South Africa's Chinese resident population, first the small matter of black market abalone and then the great matter of narcotics, the more tendrils the case seems to contain. Eventually, it even connects to Sizwe's own past, as he finds that his old friend from a more revolutionary youth, a black marketeer going by the name Specialist (Fana Mokoena) is tied up in all of this. And that's to say nothing of the dirty cops that always show up in stories like this one.

Certainly, there is pleasure to be had in watching a dogged cop hack his way through secrets and lies on his way to finding a truth, even when (as in Cold Harbour) that truth is more of the "everything is so corrupt that you can never put together a grand narrative of it all, just take down as many mid-tier badguys as you can find" variety than a more crowd-pleasingly Hollywoodized "look at who the secret big bad was all along! Now drop him off a bridge!" variety, and this is certainly the way it should be. The film is so unremittingly pessimistic at all corners that any conventionally satisfying conclusion would be completely disingenuous, so even if the last ten minutes of the film do feel like they err slightly on the side of nihilism, that's honestly what the film was leading up to all along, anyway. Still, it gets back to the "why are you telling me this story?" thing - there's certainly not a society-spanning plot that Sizwe uncovers, just a small corner of depravity, and it's just not that different from every other story of the same basic mold ("cop vs. drug ring") except in that it was shot by South Africans in South Africa, and it has a polyglot command of language.

Kgoroge's performance is tremendously striking at least, and Mokoena might even be better as a friendly face with threatening undertones, so even if the plot doesn't quite ignite the characters involved are more than typically interesting. And writer-director Carey McKenzie deserves credit for the smoothness of what she's constructed, absent perhaps the odd injection of video recordings in which Sizwe's friends and colleagues are being interviewed about him, an ex post facto gesture that tells us from the first minute that this will all end badly, but doesn't feel organically tied in with the rest of the film, nor does it reveal enough of the policeman's inner life to make this more of a character study than a procedural.

There's also an argument to be made that McKenzie's efficient filmmaking hampers the film: she and cinematographer Shane Daly employ a visual aesthetic that I could best describe as "functional", with a few hints of film noir lighting that don't make it look any more interesting than it has to, and fails to give the film a sense of urban realism in the French Connection vein. It's a little pedestrian, to go along with its somewhat pedestrian storytelling.

Still and all, it's never boring or flabby, just somewhat generic. And I suppose it's the case that by virtue of being South African and not, say, the 100th version of this story set in Los Angeles, it automatically becomes more interesting than its routine style and content would indicate. It's not the kind of movie you'd ever regret seeing, then, although it's also not the kind of movie that engenders such passion that it seems desperately important that it breaks out of the film festival rut.