It is not every day that you hear about a New York director deciding to set his feature length debut in Lesotho. In The Forgotten Kingdom, director Andrew Mudge not only embraces his outsider status, but uses it to his advantage. He crafts a richly layered film about ancestry and discovery with a childlike sense of wonder.
The film revolves around Atang (Zenzo Ngqobe), a young man living in the slums of Johannesburg with no real sense of direction. Upon discovering that his estranged father has died, Atang reluctantly agrees to fulfill his father’s wishes of being buried in his childhood village of Lesotho. Though welcomed back to the village with open arms, Atang views the villagers and their customs as backwards, especially compared to his life in the bustling city. It also does not help that the villagers praise his father as a good man, a view that is starkly different than the version of the man Atang grew up with.
Blinded by his internal rage towards his late father, Atang fails to see the cultural and emotional significance that comes with life in Lesotho. It takes a reunion with an old friend Dineo (Nozipho Nkelemba), who Atang is immediately smitten with, and a chance meeting with a cunning local orphan (Lebohang Ntsane), to slowly open his eyes. Before he realizes it, Atang’s simple in and out trip soon turns into a harrowing journey of self-discovery.
The Forgotten Kingdom is a film that looks at the ways emotions, be it anger or shame, can cripple us as individuals. Atang’s journey may take place in Lesotho, however, the themes the film touches on are universal. Mudge explores how, despite our best efforts, we can never truly turn our back on the culture and history we are born into. Atang must not only walk in his father’s footsteps, but also learn to understand that parent/child dynamics are usually shaped with the best of intentions, even if it does not always appear that way on the surface.
Mudge is able to effectively convey these dynamics thanks in part to the wonderfully nuanced performances of his actors. Zenzo Ngqobe is perfectly cast as the moody Atang. His brooding mannerisms help to convey his characters smoldering rage, while still being likeable enough to make Atang’s transformation feel natural. Ngqobe also displays good chemistry with Nozipho Nkelemba, who is given several moments of her own to shine.
Though Ngqobe and Nkelemba deliver fine performances, it is Lebohang Ntsane and Lesotho itself who ultimately are the heart of the film. First time actor Lebohang Ntsane steals almost every scene he is in with his delicate mixture of comedy and wisdom. When he claims that his eyes are the dark clouds in the sky, you actually begin to believe him. His performance helps Andrew Mudge sell the overall mysticism that flows freely like the waterfalls within the land.
Mudge’s fresh eye and keen cinematography captures the lush landscape of Lesotho in an almost ethereal way. The tranquil beauty, and the fascinating culture it breeds, nicely plays into the theme of opening oneself to the messages that the universe is trying to convey to you.
While the whole idea of a son discovering himself in the wake of his father’s death is a familiar trope in films, Andrew Mudge finds a way to make it feel both fresh and complex. The Forgotten Kingdom is a surprisingly charming film that reminds us of the importance of embracing our true selves, even when it looks like a daunting task.