Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 28, 2017 3:13 pm 
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A dangerous success

Wùlu, Ladji, a young Malian who's continually on the screen, switches from bus driving to drug trafficking and earns himself and his sister a lot of money. They rise to the top of Bamako society and Ladji gets into more and more danger - right to the edge of doom. A posT-film title explains that the cocaine boom in Mali brought vast sums into the country, and that was a large factor in the political crisis of the past five years. So, a thriller that is topical and political, confident and brightly colored and full of energy from first to last. This is an unusually accomplished and great-looking first film from Africa whose mise-en-scène, from hovels to mansions, town squares to desert shootouts, is impeccable.

As Ladji, Ibrahim Koma (who was actually born in Paris) is impressive, confident too, a dark, burnished statue who rarely shows fear or uncertainty. He is continually on the screen and we are asked to care about him, but so great is his impassivity and remoteness it may be a bit hard to care about him. We understand his logic and his motives. He's driven cross-country busses for five years and we see him at first explaining to a novice who to let on board. No fatties: they take up too much space. No sexy women: too distracting. No old people: too slow. He's got it aced, but when a nephew of the boss takes over his driving job and, absent the expected promotion he angrily walks off the job and to Driss, a drug dealer who owed him a favor and presto! he's transporting pot the Senegal on busses and bringing back cocaine. He innovates, suggesting small passenger vans, which customs passes because they'r too much trouble to check. Except there's a dangerous contretemps the very first run, and when he gets back, Driss is murdered.

From then on it's success following success and as the ante increases, just like Scarface, the hero flies closer to the sun. Ladji and his two pals and cohorts Houphouet (Jean-Marie Traoré) and Zol (Ismaël N’Diaye) start working for Driss's boss, Jean-François (Olivier Rabourdin). So much money is coming in, they're sent further afield, to Timbuktu, with weapons. And they need them.

Intermixed with the intense, accelerating narrative of the drug trafficking, which gets more dangerous and more profitable all the time, is the story of himself and his sister Aminata, a prostitute when we meet her, later a professional party girl (played by Malian singer Inna Modja). Ladji has so much money he buys land and builds a big house with a large pool. He's not happy - the danger of his criminal operations is matched by financial risks, and realization that his liaison with the high class Assitan (Mariame N’Diaye), which Aminata first pointed him to, is shaky, because he not respectable - and the high living has put him in heavy debt, which hits the fan when political disintegration in a neighboring country forces his French drug boss to check out and banish him. Again he goes higher, to Assitan's father, for more risk and more profit. Again Coulibaly has surprises in store for us.

Wùlu is well-written and skillfully plotted. It has constant excitement. Its scenes or social excess are as colorful as those of crime. It merely suffers from that familiar problem of actioners. It never stops for breath. The non-stop intensity holds our attention. But it also makes every moment equally tense, thus reducing some of the force of climactic moments - and leaving little room to set mood or develop character. There is nothing wrong with making Ladji a kind of Camus Stranger, an empty man, although this story hasn't the style of a movie by Jean-Pierre Melville or the philosophical underpinnings of Camus. But it's damn good stuff for an African debut film, it looks great, and its cast is excellent.

Wùlu, 95 mins. (in Bambara and French), debuted at Angoulême Aug. 2016; in at least nine other international festivals including Toronto, Hamburg, London, Gothenburg and the Film Society of Lincoln Center-Museum of Modern Art New Directors/New Films festival, as part of which it was screened for this review. See the highly favorable reviews from Toronto by Pamela Pianezza in Variety and Boyd van Hoeij in Hollywood Reporter. New Directors play dates:
Sun., 19 Mar. 2017 at 6:45 p.m., Walter Reade Theater.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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