Bongile Mantsai, left, and Nakhane Touré in The Wound (Kino Lorber)

This tough and thoughtful South African film explores antiquated ideas of masculinity by throwing that biggest of wrenches in the gears of the patriarchy: good ol’ homosexuality. John Trengove’s film depicts the rite of passage practiced by Xhosa communities known as Ukwaluka. During this ritual, boys in their late adolescence/early teens are taken into the mountains around Eastern Cape to be circumcised and remain on the mountain for several weeks as their wounds heal.

The detailed sound design is particularly effective. Though the actual surgery is not shown, hearing the two snips of a blade is hard enough to sit through. The filmmakers don’t let up—we hear many boys at the camp undergo the all-too-fast, unsteady procedure. Subsequently, the taking off and reapplying of bandages (dried leaves, dirt, and herbs) becomes excruciating to watch as you can imagine the blood has dried and pasted the skin to the parchment. Ouch!

During the Ukwaluka initiation, adult men supervise two or three teenagers who undergo the process. Openly gay South African pop star Nakhane Touré plays Xolani, a factor worker in Cape Town who returns to the mountain every year to serve as a mentor. Xolani is paired up with just one boy this time, Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini), who needs special one-on-one attention. Kwanda lives in the city, whereas the rest of the participating boys are from rural parts nearer to the mountain. Kwanda is poked fun at for owning a smartphone and refusing to go barefoot like everyone else.

Kwanda is outspokenly gay, and his radical opinions have been problematic for him back home. His uncle, a friend of Xolani’s family, has sent him to the initiation in hopes that the experience will have a “hardening” effect on him, as Kwanda is too “soft”—although he’s arguably the bravest one at the camp, as he is the only one resisting this obvious ritual of conformity.

Kwanda suspects Xolani is also gay, and he is right in his assessment. Xolani has a Brokeback Mountain–style relationship with Vija (Bongile Mantsai); the two come back to the mountain for the Ukwaluka every year so they can sneak off from camp and have sex. Vija is clearly the alpha male of the camp, as all the boys worship his toughness. Back home, he has a wife and three children, but he seeks the connection he and Xolani share through sex and their intimate conversations. Yet he is resistant to shows of affection, such as kissing or reciprocating passiveness. In fact, his bottle of whiskey is usually half-empty by the time he submits to Xolani’s advances.

While there is the conflict of the secret relationship between Xolani and Vija, the major conflict is between Kwanda and Xolani: an unabashed gay youth vs. a closeted gay man in his 20s. Yet we know Xolani shares some of Kwanda’s hopes about living life out in the open; he suggests to Vija that they run away together and live in a city somewhere.

Trengove’s film sheds light on many of the cracks in the Ukwaluka ritual and how it promotes a version of masculinity that does not hold up in conjunction with the contemporary world. A vow of silence has kept a lid on Ukwaluka for many years, but in the last few decades, more and more voices have risen against it. Nelson Mandela famously broke his silence about it in his memoir Long Walk to Freedom, and more recently the novel A Man Who Is Not a Man, authored by this film’s co-writer, Thando Mgqolozana, scrutinized the safety of the practice.

The film is very well executed. The three leads especially do dynamic work—Touré has a flourishing music and activist career that is worthy of checking out. Mantsai gives a wonderfully nuanced performance, and Ncoyini plays the hell out of his role of the frustrated teen who just knows better than everyone around him. The Wound opens up a lot of feelings and perhaps can make viewers look at their own skewed ideas on maleness.

Directed by John Trengove
Written by Trengove, Thado Mgqolozana, and Malusi Bengu
Released by Kino Lorber
English and Zhosa with English subtitles
South Africa. 88 min. Not rated
With Nakhane Touré, Bongile Mantsai, and Niza Jay Ncoyini