Ghanaian helmer King Ampaw’s beguiling English-speaking comedy, about the romantic travails of a lovestruck hearse driver, effortlessly shuttles between city and bush, from genre to fable and back again with nary a tonal hiccup. Throughout this sly story of a wooer’s ingenious efforts to win his lady fair, despite her father’s disapproval, lurks the constant presence of death — the very stuff out of which pic’s black-garbed hero must fashion his strategies. Ampaw’s picaresque celebration of funereal courtship proves a delight, as universally accessible as it is casually steeped in Ashanti tradition.
Asante (David Dontoh), though good-looking and personable, finds that his corpse-jockeying profession puts a damper on his lovelife, as most women are unwilling to get up close and personal with Death’s chauffeur.
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But when hired by beauteous dancer Esi (Agartha Ofori) to transport her mother’s body, Asante goes above and beyond the call of duty, courting her in his own inimitable fashion: getting a good price on an airplane-shaped coffin (her mother had always wanted to fly) and staying overnight in the village to personally put the coffin into the ground, all the while adamantly refusing payment.
With the reluctant help of his dwarf assistant (Issifu Kasimu) and one step ahead of his irate boss (Kofi Mends), Asante tools around the countryside in pursuit of Esi in an ornate wooden hearse that looks like a cross between a gypsy caravan and a circus wagon. Asante invents dead bodies as alibis, only to be flagged down in medias date to cart away a real cadaver. The fact that nobody, least of all Esi’s irascible father Owusu (Kofi Bucknor), wants a hearse or a top-hatted mortician hanging around only strengthens the besmitten Asante’s cheerful resolve.
Ampaw regular Dontoh (whose perf won him an actor prize at Spain’s Tarifa African fest this year) infuses Asante’s smiling equanimity and unflagging courtesy with enormous warmth and charm, while Ofori enlivens Esi’s dignity and beauty with a healthy measure of humor and unpretentiousness.
Helmer Ampaw, in only his third feature in a quarter-century (his aesthetic refusal to join the digital age a definite factor in the scarcity of his output), fully invests in the color, absurdity and infinite acceptance of social ritual, rendering it as comforting and arbitrary as any human attempt to come to terms with the mysteries of life and death. In a country decimated by AIDS, the gently comic mingling of Eros and Thanatos bespeaks a capacity to adapt and a stubborn joie de vivre.