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From the moment a blue Volkswagen Beetle is consumed by a fireball on the edge of a sprawling beach, director Blitz Bazawule’s 2018 “The Burial of Kojo” announces a striking vision of beauty in disarray. The New York-based Ghanian musician-turned-filmmaker’s debut follows a young girl growing up in the shadow of her troubled family, trying to make sense of her father’s dark past through haunting visions and enigmatic bursts of sorrow. Even when the story turns on blunt metaphors, it maintains an absorbing lyrical foundation. It’s one of the great modern fairy tales of recent years, less hindered by its rough edges than enhanced by them.
The saga of Esi (Cynthia Dankwa, in a remarkable debut) is a familiar sort of supernatural coming-of-age story, in which a child’s understanding of the world informs her struggles to make sense of adult complications. (See everything from “The Spirit of the Beehive” to “Pan’s Labyrinth” for reference.) Narrating as an adult in the present day, Esi recalls growing up in a remote fishing village, where her father Kojo (Joseph Otisman) fled the city for complex reasons she can’t fully understand. Esi hovers in the mythology of her youth that her father gives to her, including his dazzling account of “golden droplets raining from the sky” with her birth — a dynamic visual reminiscent of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” but made all the more entrancing by Bazawule’s own energizing Afropop score (he performs as Blitz the Ambassador).
The first act of the movie builds out the idyllic intimacy of Esi’s life with her parents, but it doesn’t take long for that experience to grow more complicated. Esi’s village receives a pair of new visitors in quick succession: a shamanistic figure who makes ominous predictions about the future and hands Esi a white bird to protest from a mystical crow, and Kojo’s long-lost brother, who convinces his sibling to return to the city for an illegal mining expedition. These events are naturally linked, as one provides a blunt metaphor for the other, as the brothers’ complex history takes on distinct Cain-and-Abel connotations. But it takes the rest of the movie for Esi to fully comprehend that connection, and it’s fascinating to watch her get there.
In the city, “The Burial of Kojo” flits between the brothers’ experiences in the murky underbelly of the mining business and Esi’s bored routine watching telenovelas at home with her mother. But when Kojo goes missing in a sudden burst of violence, the two worlds combine into a kind of poetic adventure story, with Esi journeying to the afterlife in a sweeping quest to rescue her father from oblivion. The score oscillates from mournful to awe-inspiring as Esi realizes her mission, eventually building to a vibrant, jazzy swell. It’s here that the filmmaker’s roots as a musician show, as the cresting soundtrack works in congress with its haunting visuals: Much like “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Bazawule uses the spectacular natural vistas to lend the feel of a handcrafted epic.
As with Mati Diop’s “Atlantics,” Bazawule excels at merging profound soul-searching of African mythology with present-day concerns, as the movie captures one woman’s attempts to reconcile her memories with the real-world circumstances that actually informed her upbringing. That process comes to a close in a subtle conclusion, as the character closes the book on one chapter of her life and leaves us to contemplate where it might lead her next. But “The Burial of Kojo” doesn’t make the case for a sequel so much as it suggests that Bazawule has many more stories to tell.
“The Burial of Kojo” is now streaming on Netflix.