A crime thriller set in a world where the police can’t protect you from your enemies.
Revenge thrillers are a type of crime thriller that typically feature characters seeking revenge against those who have wronged them.
Vengeance is delivered with great flair and ingenuity in “Saloum,” a fast and furious crime-horror-thriller that twists and turns its way through the mangroves, islands, and inlets of Senegal’s Sine-Saloum coastal region. To create an exciting and uniquely African tale, Congolese director Jean Luc Herbulot freely combines and marries the cinematic languages of spaghetti Westerns, samurai dramas, and classic monster pictures in his second feature. It revolves on a group of mercenaries who are locked up in a weird summer camp with a terrible secret.
There isn’t much else in Senegalese cinema that compares to “Saloum,” which is likely to be in great demand at festivals and has the potential for a profitable commercial existence beyond that.
“Saloum” marks a successful start to feature production for Lacme Studios, the Dakar-based company established in 2019 by Herbulot and his producer and creative partner Pamela Diop as part of a small but growing wave of African genre films garnering global recognition. The outfit’s second film, “Zero,” will be released in 2022, and there is sure to be a lot of excitement.
In “Saloum,” Herbulot exudes confidence and beautiful visual flourishes, building on the potential he showed in his debut film, “Dealer” (2014), and as creator-director of “Sakho & Mangane” in 2019. (the first Africa-filmed, French-language TV series acquired by streaming giant Netflix). Herbulot’s ability to maintain the story’s driving pace and cohesion as the tone shifts from action thriller to gloomy criminal melodrama, spooky folk horror, full-tilt monster movie, and back is really remarkable.
The first stop on the genre-hopping trip is Guinea-Bissau. During the country’s 2003 military takeover, the Bangui Hyenas, a trio of mercenaries with legendary, even mythological reputations in these parts, extract Mexican drug kingpin Felix (Renaud Farah) and a bag of gold bullion (described as bloodless in mainstream media reports but very distinctly not so here). These hired shooters are meant to be “sorcerers,” according to an omniscient voiceover narrator, whose exploits are “told at midnight to delight young troops high on crack.” The Hyenas’ goal is straightforward: take Felix to Dakar and collect a large sum of money in return for their time and effort.
Chaka (Yann Gael), a beautiful, smart, and intellectual type, is the frightening crew’s leader. Tough guy Rafa (Roger Sallah) and Midnight (retired telecom tech-turned actor Mentor Ba), an elderly man with a magnificent shock of white dreadlocks and a weird, otherworldly air about him, surround him on all sides. These are the kind of antiheroes that people like reading about. They are committed to one other and bound together by an unbreakable bond of honor.
The Hyenas are forced to crash in the Sine-Saloum Delta, where Senegal’s Saloum River meets the North Atlantic, when the gasoline tank of their escape aircraft explodes. Sine-Saloum, according to our narrator, is “a sacred and protected area” as well as “a land of tales and destined kings.” From the moment Chaka leads the Hyenas and Felix to Baobab Camp, an out-of-the-way vacation destination he remembers from his youth, “Saloum” takes on an unpleasant folk horror-like vibe.
Baobab is a complex of beach huts and cabins owned by Omar (Bruno Henry), an amiable eccentric who imposes daily responsibilities to his guests as a condition of staying there. Omar also hosts community meals where topics of discussion include post-colonial African politics and the words of Burkina Faso’s anti-imperialist, Pan-Africanist first president, Thomas Sankara. Tense undercurrents run through these seemingly nice meetings, as if the smallest misstep or misinterpretation might send everything spinning out of control.
Any intentions Chaka and company had to hide until the aircraft could be fixed and they could fly to Dakar were soon shattered. Among the camp’s visitors are Souleymane (Ndiaga Mbow), a cheerful police commander, and Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), an obsessive young mute woman who recognizes the Hyenas and threatens to expose them unless certain conditions are met. In this kind of environment — and in the company of these quirky people — it seems perfectly normal for both Chaka and Rafa to be proficient in sign language. This technique is used successfully in the script to heighten tension and trigger unexpected plot twists.
Around the halfway mark, the weird vibe around Baobab coalesces into something overtly malevolent. The spark is Chaka’s recurring nightmare. These recurrent visions have compelled him to return to this place and take revenge on those responsible for crimes against humanity. Worse, these crimes are currently being carried out in the name of a terrible pact between earthly and extraterrestrial forces.
Chaka’s participation in the unleashing of ugly creatures that bore no resemblance to the numerous monsters we’ve seen in horror films over the years has produced an unexpected and spectacular outcome. These monsters seem to be birds swarming in a whirlpool-like arrangement at first sight, before changing into human-shaped beings with horns. But there’s more to these incredible computer-generated images. The combination seems to contain earth components such as leaves, dirt, and other organic matter. These creatures’ exact composition is unclear, but their ability to startle, surprise, and terrify people is evident. Unlike many horror movies, “Saloum” permits its animals to lose almost all of their lives in broad daylight, and it reaps the rewards.
Throughout the chaos, “Saloum” keeps its narrative and character pistons running, cramming a tremendous amount of action and information into just 80 minutes. Midnight’s connection to spiritual issues and Awa’s motives are part of a closing act that offers the Hyenas a heroic dimension and very satisfying endings to the film’s multi-layered narrative.
“Saloum” is directed by Gregory Corandi, a first-time feature DP, and has a great score by French multi-instrumentalist Reksider, which includes everything from lovely choruses to thumping afro drum sounds. The technical aspects of the film are flawless.
SCORE: 8 OUT OF 10
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