Working-class, Johannesburg-based Zulu men compete in amateur fashion contests to determine who’s the prettiest one of all in Danish helmer Jeppe Ronde’s sensual sophomore docu “The Swenkas.” Portrait of a flamboyant subculture of straight men gains extra heft through its focus on father-son relationships — a major theme in Ronde’s previous “Jerusalem, My Love” — although end result is not quite as fluent or resonant. Feelgood trajectory and use of retro soundtrack featuring Henry Mancini and others should help pic strut its stuff for additional fests and upmarket broadcasters. Pic could have delicate legs as a boutique theatrical release as well.
Early sequence illustrates the subtle art of “swenking,” in which assorted men dress up in expensive, often colorful designer suits and parade in front of judges in a Johannesburg community hall, striking dramatic poses to show off their matching accessories. (Per Ronde, “swenk” is thought to derive from Middle-Dutch, via English word “swank.”)
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Effect is markedly similar to the gay craze for “vogueing” in the ’80s, although the participants here are apparently all muy macho straight guys who delight in impressing the girls with their flashy duds. Lovingly shot montage of one contest is set to Mancini’s swooning jazz track “Lujon,” also heard in “Sexy Beast.”
Divided into chapters, pic follows fortunes of young Sabelo, whose recently deceased father, Manlik Male, was the old leader of the Swenkas. Manlik’s old buddy, Mr. Zulu, aka Mr. Dangerous, wants Sabelo to follow in his late father’s footsteps and keep up the tradition.
He takes the younger man on a shopping expedition for a new swenking suit, but Sabelo still dithers over joining the group officially. Later on, the two return to their home village in the veldt where Sabelo marries the mother of his son Bong and ultimately makes his decision.
Pic is bookended by a wise old-man narrator (Yule Masiteng) speaking in folksy fashion, an unnecessary device that feels contrived, especially as bulk of pic stands up well enough on its own. Another storyteller from Sabelo’s village tells tale of a young couple and some bears, but choppy editing interrupts her flow.
Ronde demonstrates a painterly eye and ripe affection for these people, but as with “Jerusalem, My Love” he maintains a too-polite, worshipful distance from his subjects. For example, it’s never quite clear why the shy, not-especially articulate Sabelo hesitates so much over becoming a Swenka.
Fine widescreen lensing by Lars Skree, Sebastian Wintero and Nic Hofmeyr captures the seedy glamour of Jo’burg dancehalls and townships and the dazzling countryside with equal ease.