Written and directed by Jean Luc Herbulot.
Starring Yann Gael, Evelyne Ily Juhen, Roger Sallah, Mentor Ba, Bruno Henry, Marielle Salmier, Babacar Oualy, Ndiaga Mbow, Cannabasse, and Renaud Farah.
2003, three mercenaries taking a drug trafficker out of Guinea-Bissau are forced to hide in the mystical region of Saloum, Senegal.
In 2003, during Guinea-Bissau’s bloodiest military coup, Saloum (coming from writer-director Jean Luc Herbulot, with Pamela Diop receiving a story credit) offers plenty to absorb. It’s equal parts child soldier revenge film, an immersive, artfully directed pulp action (with beautifully picturesque photography by Gregory Corandi) with distinct characters, an exciting game of secrets, and a supernatural horror story that intertwines its central themes.
Saloum it’s also only 80 minutes uncredited, which means the script runs amok throughout its course, working like a South African spaghetti western with a mythic twist. There’s no denying that the film draws from various influences, but the excellent execution of those ingredients results in a unique and exciting experience.
A trio of mercenaries dubbed the Bangui Hyenas are tasked with snatching and seizing drug dealer Felix (Renaud Farah) in the aforementioned war-torn area (a staggeringly suspenseful opening sequence featuring a tracking shot of mercenaries slowly making their way past a trail of dead civilian bodies). The mission is successful, at least until the extraction plane runs out of fuel, forcing squad leader Chaka (Yann Gael) with an exceptional performance that balances hubris alongside the effects of PTSD on a man tortured to hell. and back) to land in the titular Saloum (a region in Senegal).
Alongside his partners Minuit and Rafa (played by Mentor Ba and Roger Sallah, respectively), Chaka leads the team to a nearby camp run by Omar (Bruno Henry). The plan is to rest and get some fuel, mingling with the locals. However, with the arrival of a policeman and a deaf-mute woman, both with ulterior motives for the group. As tensions rise, Omar shares insights into how this camp works; instead of paying money, residents are assigned tasks to keep the place prosperous.
As Saloum speed up, there isn’t much time to explore this dynamic and some character backstories, but the ideas in place are effective. The same could be said for the motivations of these characters. but once Saloum taking off as a revenge story about the horrors of child soldiers intertwined with swarm attacks, evil spirits, it’s an intense ride, albeit one that drops some salient aspects of its first half. Without giving away too much, senses like sight and hearing come into play to survive, forcing the characters to be cunning, so there’s still some ingenuity to the execution.
no problem with Saloum effectively changing gender every 30 minutes, but one wishes each section had a little more meat to chew on. The upside is that Jean Luc Herbulot’s direction is so absorbing and at times visually unsettling that the gist of the story remains shocking. It also helps that Bangui’s hyenas exude coolness, even in the face of mounting danger.
Saloum it’s a mix of western and horror conventions that together feel fresh and stylistically compelling, even if it’s arguable that the narrative needed a sharp turn into horror territory.
Flashing Myth Rating – Movie: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the reviews editor for Flickering Myth. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]