Revenge is a dish served with considerable style and imagination in “Saloum,” a fast and furious crime-horror-thriller that twists and turns its way around the mangroves, islets and inlets of Senegal’s Sine-Saloum coastal region. Centered on a trio of mercenaries holed up in a strange holiday camp that harbors a diabolical secret, the second feature by Congolese filmmaker Jean Luc Herbulot freely mixes and marries the cinematic languages of spaghetti Westerns, samurai dramas and classic monster movies to tell an exciting and distinctly African story. There’s not much else in Senegalese cinema to compare with “Saloum,” which is bound to be in high demand on the festival circuit and has the sheer entertainment value to enjoy a successful commercial life thereafter.
Part of a small but growing wave of African genre cinema to attract international exposure, “Saloum” marks a winning start to feature production for Lacme Studios, the Dakar-located company formed in 2019 by Herbulot and Pamela Diop, his producer and creative partner. Anticipation is now sure to be high for the outfit’s second feature, “Zero,” due in 2022.
Building on the promise he displayed with debut feature “Dealer” (2014), and as creator-director of 2019’s “Sakho & Mangane” (the first Africa-filmed, French-language TV series bought by streaming giant Netflix), Herbulot brings confidence and classy visual flourishes to “Saloum.” Most impressive is Herbulot’s ability to maintain the story’s propulsive thrust and cohesion as the tone shifts from action thriller to moody crime melodrama, spooky folk horror and full-tilt monster movie, then back again.
First stop on the genre-hopping tale is Guinea-Bissau. During the country’s 2003 military coup (described as bloodless in mainstream media reports but very distinctly not so here), Mexican drug lord Felix (Renaud Farah) and a suitcase of gold bullion is extracted by the Bangui Hyenas, a trio of mercenaries with legendary, almost mythical reputations in these parts. As an occasional and omniscient voiceover narrator informs us, these guns for hire are rumored to be “sorcerers” whose exploits are “told at nightfall to excite child soldiers high on crack.” The Hyenas’ supposedly straightforward task is to deliver Felix to Dakar and collect a mountain of cash for their time and trouble.
Leader of the formidable crew is Chaka (Yann Gael), a handsome, smart and erudite type. On his flanks are tough dude Rafa (Roger Sallah) and Midnight (played by retired telecom tech-turned actor Mentor Ba), an older man with a striking shock of white dreadlocks and a mysterious, ethereal air about him. Fiercely loyal and bound by an unbreakable code of honor, these guys are exactly the kind of antiheroes audiences find fascinating and compelling.
When the fuel tank of their escape plane springs a leak, the Hyenas are forced to set down in Sine-Saloum Delta, where Senegal’s Saloum River meets the North Atlantic. Our narrator tells us Sine-Saloum is “a sacred and protected place” and “a land of myths, and cursed kings.” True to those words, “Saloum” acquires an unsettling folk horror-like ambience from the moment Chaka leads the Hyenas and Felix to Baobab Camp, an out-of-the-way holiday destination he remembers from long ago.
A collection of seaside huts and cabins, Baobab is run by Omar (Bruno Henry), an avuncular oddball who assigns chores to his guests each day as a condition of accommodation. Omar also hosts communal meals where the wide-ranging topics of conversation include politics in post-colonial Africa and the sayings of Thomas Sankara, the anti-imperialist, Pan-Africanist first president of Burkina Faso. Tense undercurrents run through these notionally agreeable exchanges, as if the slightest wrong word or look could set things on a decidedly darker path.
Any thoughts Chaka and company have of laying low until they can repair the plane and hotfoot it to Dakar are soon scuppered. Among the camp’s guests are smiling police chief Souleymane (Ndiaga Mbow) and Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), an intense young mute woman who recognizes the Hyenas and threatens to expose them unless certain conditions are met. In this kind of environment — and in the company of these offbeat characters — it seems perfectly natural for both Chaka and Rafa to also be fluent in sign language. The screenplay expertly exploits this device to ramp up tension and trigger unpredictable plot twists.
At around the halfway point, the mysterious atmosphere at Baobab coalesces into something explicitly malevolent. The catalyst is a recurring nightmare experienced by Chaka. These insistent visions have compelled him to revisit this place and take revenge on those responsible for terrible crimes. Worse still, these offenses continue to be perpetrated in the service of an appalling compact between earthly and other-worldly forces.
The sudden and spectacular upshot of Chaka’s intervention is the unleashing of monstrous beings that bear no immediate resemblance to countless beasties we’ve seen in horror movies over the years. At first sight, these creatures appear to be birds crazily flocking together in whirlpool-like formation before morphing into human-shaped figures with horns. But there’s more going on with these excellent CG creations. Elements of the earth such as leaves, dirt and other organic material appear to be part of the mix. The precise composition of these beings may be hard to determine, but what’s not in doubt is their ability to produce shock, suspense and terror. Unlike many horror films, “Saloum” lets its monsters loose almost exclusively in broad daylight and is all the better for it.
Packing a huge amount of action and information into just 80 minutes, “Saloum” keeps its story and character pistons firing all through the mayhem. Awa’s motives and Midnight’s connection with spiritual matters are part of a final act that brings a heroic dimension to the Hyenas and highly satisfying resolutions to the film’s multi-layered storyline.
Set to a terrific score by French multi-instrumentalist Reksider that includes everything from heavenly choruses to thumping afro drum beats, “Saloum” is nicely shot in widescreen by first-time feature DP Gregory Corandi. All of the film’s technical aspects are on the money.