An energetic, genre-hopping adventure that strikes an emotional chord too.
Synopsis: 2003, three mercenaries extracting a druglord out of Guinea-Bissau are forced to hide in the mystical region of Saloum, Senegal.
Saloum wastes no time in setting out the dual nature of what it wants to do. Beginning with a quote about the destructive nature of revenge, terming it a river that we reach the bottom of when we drown, then immediately switching to a frenetic sequence set in the heart of a military coup, the film quickly establishes how quickly and effectively it can switch tone and themes, while still maintaining a handle on the material.
Due to this fluidity, it is difficult to go too far into the details of Saloum – this is something best experienced without too much prior knowledge. The basics are that the Bangui Hyenas, made up of Chaka (Yann Gael), Rafa (Roger Sallah) and Midnight (Mentor Ba) are mercenaries, tasked with removing a drug lord out of Guinea-Bissau during a coup. A troubled flight leads them to land in Saloum. Making a deal to stay at a camp there, it soon becomes apparent that not all is well in the area.
Director and co-writer Jean Luc Herbulot has said that Saloum is a “love letter to Africa and to cinema”. This is definitely something that sings throughout every frame of the film, with sweeping overhead photography showcasing the beauty of the landscape. The fluid camerawork continues on the ground, giving every scene a kinetic energy. The use of genre trappings (and the refusal to stick rigidly to them) shows the warmth for genres like horror and western. A pulsing soundtrack and reliance on hazy flashbacks to fill in details rather than too much spoken exposition keeps things moving at pace.
With all those technical considerations and almost meta construction, it would be easily for the characterisation or story to suffer under the weight of them. Thankfully, the thought put into the construction by Herbulot and co-writer Pamela Diop sustains the simple, yet emotionally charged story. The cast provide excellent support in this regard, with Yann Gael in particular demonstrating a magnetic screen presence. There is a lightness to their interactions, injecting some comedy into proceedings that helps with the connection to them. Evelyne Ily Juhen is a particular highlight, bringing an intensity to Awa that means you cannot take your eyes off her.
Due to the shifts the film takes, some elements do feel like they would benefit from slightly more development – the concepts are well-explained and visualised well, but a little more time to allow them to weave in to the rest of the story would be welcome, simply because it isn’t the kind of lore portrayed very much and definitely marks the most unique aspect of the film.
A compelling and emotional story, supported by excellent performances and a confident technical hand, Saloum is a great snapshot of action-horror.
4 out of 5 stars
Saloum screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2021. See the schedule for more information.