The Forgotten Kingdom is the first feature film in history to have been made in Lesotho. This is noteworthy and interesting, but it is also, in some sense, a pity.
It means there is a danger that it will become the "Lesotho movie"; its reputation reduced to little more than the location where it was filmed.
Yet this is a film that can easily stand on its artistic merits, which are quite considerable.
The Forgotten Kingdom tells the story of Atang (Zenzo Ngqobe), a Basotho man who has spent most of his life in South Africa. At the start of the movie he has fully acclimatised to city life in Johannesburg, but he's shiftless and unemployed. He's also kind of a jerk. (At one point, in a clear example of movie code for villainy, he gives a cigarette to a school-age child.)
Then Atang's father dies, forcing him to return to his ancestral homeland of Lesotho for the burial. At first he is annoyed by the locals, with their quaint superstitions and their meddling in his private family affairs. But he meets a woman, Dineo (Nozipho Nkelemba), a schoolteacher who is nursing her HIV-positive sister. Over time he falls in love – first with her, and then with the country itself.
There are many, many stories about bad people who are redeemed by love. The interesting thing about the The Forgotten Kingdom is that it consciously rejects this idea. Atang is not redeemed by love – he is redeemed by his own hard work and compassion. He gets a job, turns his life around, and eventually sets off on a quest (mounted on horseback, like a medieval knight) to prove himself worthy of the woman he loves.
I suspect the film will appeal to foreign as well as local audiences, because the themes it deals with are universal. It revolves around the oldest divide in human history: between people who live in cities, and people who live in the countryside. Movies are usually made by city-dwellers, and not coincidentally, they often take a condescending attitude towards people who live in the countryside, and treat them as backwards or strange.
The Forgotten Kingdom takes a different approach. Indeed, there are times when it seems in danger of going too far in the opposite direction – that it might end up, in effect, romanticising rural poverty. But the film mostly avoids this trap. It acknowledges the problems that exist in rural life: poverty, prescriptive gender roles, the stigma surrounding HIV. But it refrains from judging its subjects, preferring to treat them with sympathy and understanding.
If there is one flaw with The Forgotten Kingdom, it lies with the awkward treatment of the HIV subplot. Dineo's HIV-positive sister has no agency, is unseen for most of the film, and her existence is chiefly used as a plot device to establish her father as a bad guy in the minds of the audience. When she is finally brought out at the end, it feels as though she is literally being used as a prop.
This is unfortunate, but it doesn't detract too much from the poignancy at the heart of The Forgotten Kingdom. City life is about striving and accomplishment – and throughout history cities have been the great engine of human progress. This film reminds us there is another way to live, which is equally valid, and which many of us deeply long for.
That is: to be content, to live in harmony with ourselves and our surroundings, to just be.