VOD Review: The Burial of Kojo.
The directorial debut of Blitz the Ambassador is evocative and beautiful, but narratively frustrating.
New on Netflix, The Burial of Kojo is a film which plays by its own rules, and that becomes the source of many of its strengths as well as its weaknesses. Elements of magical realism come into play – visions, prophetic dreams, and a child’s imagination allow the cinematography to indulge in gorgeous flights of fancy. The film is also grounded in the bodily presence of its characters, creating a textured and granular feel of life on the margins of modern Ghana.
The freedom of the film to move between these two worlds and experiences lead to much that is beautiful, but little that feels narratively fulfilling. It is only at the very end that we get the reason for this, but by then it’s too late to save the film from feeling indulgent and unfocussed.
The Burial of Kojo (2018).
Esi recounts the life of her father, Kojo (Josephy Otsiman). Stung by tragedy and an unrequited love for his brother’s wife, he flees the city for an idyllic fishing village. Here he finds love and a simple way of life with his wife, Ama (Mamley Djangmah), and daughter, Esi (Cynthia Dankwa). Seven years later, his brother comes and urges him to return to the city, where another tragedy awaits him. It falls to Esi and her visions of the spirit world to find Kojo when he goes missing.
Descriptions of the film seem split on what the film’s narrative is. It bills itself as a journey of magical realism, where a young girl must rescue her father. Other places describe it more like a coming of age drama, grounded in the modern realities of Ghana. And again, others focus more on the story of two brothers, torn by the love of the same woman into a deadly rivalry.
All three of these are true, yet none of them feel essential. The story is happy to spend time meandering along one path, before deciding to change focus and follow another thread. Elements are introduced and toyed with at length, before disappearing, never to effect the story again. To further complicate things, there is active subterfuge – a play-within-a-play telenovela about dueling brothers, sudden reveals about characters from nowhere, and deus-ex machina characters are sprinkled throughout.
Flip the Script.
It’s hard to talk about Kojo without getting right to spoilers. So, here’s your warning. At the very end, we discover that Esi (Ama K. Abebrese), who has been narrating, is now a grown woman and presumably an author. She is narrating this tale to an audience in a bookstore. That simple reveal recontextualizes the whole film, but comes way too late.
Had we known that this was a story, but based on the lived in experience of the author, the mismatch in tones would have vanished. The magical realism is the author’s prerogative, a way of expressing the events as understood by a child. The focus on minutia and daily life that seem to lead nowhere are simply the facts as they happened. The frustrating ending to Esi’s attempt to save her father feels authentic knowing that it’s a lightly embroidered autobiography. Not knowing that, the story feels like a jumbled mess.
Looking at the film backwards, it feels like To Kill a Mockingbird – the tale of a summer, where some momentous things happen, but also a lot of mundane things, and the story doesn’t get a tidy fairy tale ending. By instead starting the film with prophetic visions and folk-tale allusions, you expect the beats of a heroic journey, and are constantly frustrated.
Enough to Go On?
Sam Blitz Bazuwule (known professionally as the musician Blitz the Ambassador) does a lot of great things with the camera. There are so many unconventional shots, from extreme low-angles to whole segments with the frame inverted on its head, that The Burial of Kojo is delightful for fans of film craft. The use of music and ambient sound is deft and intoxicating. The natural settings are all gorgeous, even when they’re tawdry, and are chosen with an expert eye. The characters all feel resonant and realistic, with the camera paying close attention to bodily sensation that you can feel in your bones.
At the end of the day, the joy of seeing such fresh and invigorating technique wasn’t enough to get me over the narrative shortcomings. The film is and hour and twenty minutes long. It took me three hours to watch it, and it felt more like five hours by the time I was done. The pace is indulgent, to be polite.
Add in all of the plot threads that go nowhere and the sudden insertion of fantastic elements, and getting to the final scene was a grueling experience. I feel it would have been immensely less frustrating had the final scene been the first…but I’m not sure if even that would have been enough to make The Burial of Kojo more than a beautiful misfire.