Is Afro-noir going to be a thing after ‘Gold Coast Lounge’, the latest cinematic offering from writer-director Pascal Aka? Film noir serves as the obvious inspiration for this post-independence crime flick which is rife with distracting anachronisms brought on by budget constraints and drab archetypes given life by an undercooked screenplay.
Whilst the aesthetic and visual sensibilities feel like a novelty, the path of noir has been trodden on somewhat in contemporary Ghanaian cinema. Shirley Frimpong Manso’s ‘Potomanto’ exhibited some of the genre conventions that aligned more comfortably with neo-noir given the obvious character staples like a private eye and a femme fatale navigating morally ambiguous waters.
Peel away the noir-tinged shell of Gold Coast Lounge’, though, and we get a film with ideas that reach beyond the noir workings to the neo-realist sensibilities that defined classic African cinema. There is ambition from Aka. But ambition will only take one so far when there is a decided deficit of craft and scale that betrayed the big screen and gave affairs a televisual feel. It’s never a good thing when a film feels like a backdoor pilot.
Talking of feel, ‘Gold Coast Lounge’ is at its best when it’s divorced from reality. The film opens to moments of quiet with our protagonist, Daniel (Alphonse Menyo), reveling in the simple delights of a slice of chocolate cake in a secluded section of the eponymous establishment. The cake is a nice symbol of Daniel’s refinement over the years from village thief smitten by bofrot to trusted lieutenant in a crime family.
For the first few scenes, Daniel is even atop this crime family, quite possibly living one of his few dreams, because the boss of this gang is enduring a short stint in prison. But reality soon bursts through to reveal discord and resentment slowly festering to the surface. We get acquainted with Zynnell Zuh’s haughty and entitled Akatua, an estranged member of the gang who is pushing her weight around by organising illegal brawls in the lounge. Trying to pull some strings in the background is the erratic Wisdom (Aka), who has been Daniel’s rival since they were pups.
On the surface, the tensions arise from Daniel’s efforts to steer the lounge and the criminal enterprise into legit waters. This direction is endorsed by the returning boss, John Donkor (Adjetey Annang) who is given three weeks by the government to cut out the criminal aspects of their organization and prove the club can exist as a wholesome enterprise. The foundation of the new lounge is to be showbiz. John’s eyes fall on Rose (Raquel Ammah) a comfort girl of sort looking to leverage her voice and the lounge’s new direction for a brighter future.
It is contrivances galore when we start to get a feel for the characters. Rose and Daniel have history; a history revealed to us by mere exposition and brief flashback, a tool Aka employs quite frequently. But, and no prizes for guessing, she is firmly in John’s clutches, so close yet so far from Daniel for the time being. Daniel also has a fraught relationship with his past, a point the film hits at ever so slightly before dropping the weight of the past on us in the final act.
There is a tediousness and lack of cohesion in the way the key characters are framed, almost like they were plucked from different films at the last minute. The central tension between Daniel, Wisdom and Akatua; who all want to take control of the lounge, seldom packs an emotional punch even though we have a rough outline of their motivations.
Wisdom, who reminds us taught Daniel to read, feels passed over though his sense of entitlement is misplaced because he is cut from your typical insecure and erratic cloth. Akatua views the lounge as her inheritance because of her blood ties. The more assured Daniel is all but the chosen successor because he simply bests Wisdom in a brawl to John’s delight.
John is supposed to be a father figure here and this made me question the casting of Annang, who distractingly looks and feels more like a big brother. Fred Amugi also shows up in the film and I imagine the complexion of the film is changed completely for the better if he is the one lending his gravitas as a more fitting patriarch to this crime family. The irony here is this is the most comfortable I’ve seen Annang on screen, in what could count among his better performances. He metes out wisdom and threats in fluid Ga and generally gets the better end of the dialogue stick.
The other end of the dialogue stick leaves a lot to be desired, much like other aspects of the screenplay. Not to delve into details but the main problems are that Aka’s story is bloated and more importantly, doesn’t show enough of its working. I wouldn’t call some of the characters turns or twists ludicrous but he is using a calculator to jump from point to point instead of serving the minutia of character-building moments and the process of this organisation.
Consider how the film makes ill-conceived jumps to explain some back story to Daniel and also Akatua. In quick bursts, we learn about their fraught family ties but like much of the film, they exist only move characters from one point to another and explain actions they are yet to take. For most of the film, there is a B-movie vibe to proceedings and you get the sense Aka and his largely functional eye would rather be directing a straightforward action film.
But there are a few moments our director levels up; the moments when he strikes the right balance between subtext and fantasy; like when he ventures into the richly inspired surreal asides or when he follows the white-hat Daniel onto cloud nine in the section of the film where he peaks as boss of the lounge. There is an invigoratingly edited stretch where Aka sucked me in completely with its tactful mimicking of the energy of newfound independence. It’s a shame that art mirrors reality in the way that its downhill from that point on.