Money is the root of all evil. It may give one a temporary high, but the pursuit of material wealth will eventually be the driving force toward your wreck and ruin, so you need to find that other connection in life if you have any hope of making it in this world. In Hard to Get, a very robust and stylistic South African noir from debut feature director Zee Ntuli, this is exactly what the two protagonists need to figure out if they hope to survive and create a better life.
TK (Pallance Dladla) is the local lothario of his village, making bets with his friends to see how many minutes it will take for him to talk a girl into sleeping with him in the backroom of the bar in which he works. Enter the gorgeous Skiets (Thishiwe Ziqubu), a woman of mystery who immediately catches TK’s eye. Unlike the other women, Skiets has no interest in TK, at least not until she sees him standing his ground against the local gangster Mugza (Israel Makoe). It isn’t long until the two of them cause enough trouble that they have to flee to Johannesburg, where Skiets is sure they will find their fortune. It is in the big city where their dreams of wealth are quickly dashed when they run afoul of crime boss Gumede (Paka Zwedala).
While not a perfect film, Hard to Get is a fun exercise in plot mechanics. Essentially a film noir with action beats, director Ntuli and screenwriter Thuso Sibisi (both veterans of South African television) know how to produce a lean and mean genre piece that showcases a love and knowledge of rolling action. Every decision TK or Skiets make causes the one domino to fall which in turn causes the following one to do likewise, until the two protagonists are trying unsuccessfully to outrun what they put in motion.
There is also an abundance of slow motion used in the film to broaden the otherwise modest action set pieces. There are no long car chases or choreographed running gun battles, so Ntuli uses the tools in his arsenal to increase the production value. This is not a wholly successful technique, but it is an understandable one and there are moments where the slow motion becomes strangely beautiful, particularly toward the end where it involves a fist fight in a rooftop pool. The slow motion is also coupled with a loud dubstep soundtrack which actually works quite well, as it encapsulates the youthful exuberance of the two protagonists.
Despite the action movie aesthetic, the story is much more of a noir in the vein of something James M. Cain may have written in the 1940s. Even though he’s popular with the ladies, TK is a bit of a loser and stuck in a rut and – though he doesn’t realize it – he is looking for some more excitement in his life. He is the one who is wooed by Skiets, a femme fatale who is turned on by danger and is not looking for any romantic attachments. She’s only interested in TK for what he can do for her.
The film is fascinated with idea of sex and danger, with Skiets only becoming romantically interested in TK whenever he displays bravado, something she is able to draw out of him. There is also the villain Gumede, who cannot perform sexually without using violence. The filmmakers’ choice to link sex with danger is an interesting commentary on the problem of HIV and AIDS in South Africa, and makes the stakes feel a lot more real through subtlety and subtext.
The real villain of the piece, however, represented by the literal bad guys Mugza and Gumede, is money. Everything bad that happens to TK and Skiets involves the filthy lucre and it is their foolish decisions about how to get it that lands them in hot water over and over again. They believe they will not be truly happy unless they are rich, and when Gumede lends them money which he expects to be paid back, they blow it all on nightclubs and champagne. Ntuli and Sibisi want to call attention to another problem affecting a lot of South Africans. Money does not buy happiness, rather, it should be found amongst friends and family. At one point Skiets refers to TK’s home town as a “ditch,” and TK calls her on it, telling her it raised him well. Home is definitely where the heart is, and no amount of money can make you happier than when you are at home, wherever or whatever that may be.
A very assured and stylish debut film, Hard to Get shows a lot of talent and promise from filmmakers Ntuli and Sibisi. If there is an over reliance on aesthetic touches to make a meagre budget stretch a little further then so be it, that is the sign of a director using what he has the best way he knows how. At times the well-oiled gears of the plot are a little to apparent and there is a point somewhere in the middle where they grind to a halt, dissipating the momentum that the film had built up to that point. But still, there is really nothing beyond quibbles that can brought against this fun and at times very amusing film.
While far from stellar, Hard to Get remains a fun and clever South African action noir.