Judge Adam Arseneau prefers Kibbles & Bits.
A road trip comedy by way of Johannesburg, Bunny Chow strives for edge and spontaneity, but ends up boring and pedantic.
Facts of the Case
For struggling standup comic Dave (David Kibuuka), making people laugh is the hardest part of his job. Try as he might, he can't quite master the comedic arts. His comic friends encourage him, but fully admit amongst themselves that Dave has his work cut out for him. Kags (Kagiso Lediga) can't keep himself from the women, including his new girlfriend Kim (Kim Engelbrecht). Joey (Joey Yusuf Rasdien) spends his time fighting with his girl Angela (Angela Chow) and struggling to assert his own Muslim identity in the face of the temptations of South African life.
When the three get an opportunity to perform their comedy at Oppi Koppi, South Africa's largest music festival, they jump at the chance and commandeer a vehicle. Along the way, they run into every crazy person, weirdo, and vagabond. Each of the friends has something to prove, but the road is a long one to success and fame.
Part indie film, part documentary, Bunny Chow is eager to show its audiences its hipster and spontaneous attitude. It has the feel of a film largely unscripted, a collaboration of creative talent with a rough outline of a script and plenty of film left over on the cutting room floor. This kind of filmmaking is random and hit-or-miss; what works feels fun and fresh, but so much of Bunny Chow feels like a tedious exercise in freshman filmmaking. Each of the actors essentially plays a fictionalized version of themselves, their characters sharing their names, blurring the line between storytelling and simple narcissism. The DVD packaging suggests comparisons to the early work of Spike Lee, but outside of some gentle riffing on white folk, the comparison is weak. The story is unfocused, wandering, and easily distracted, like the video journal of a cinematographer with ADD hanging out with noisy people.
A connoisseur of South African filmmaking I am not, but I know enough about the country's work to recognize how rare it is to see a film this unstructured and pointless receive international attention. Most films that make it this way are serious heavy things, weighed down by post-apartheid angst, class and race issues, diamonds, AIDS, politics, etc. Frankly, we don't get many South African stoner road comedies. In this sense, Bunny Chow is refreshingly different; it asks nothing of its audiences beyond simple attendance. The downside is that Bunny Chow isn't particularly funny or endearing. It's nice to see a South African film free of its social and political burdens, but irritating to find one so pointless and self-indulgent. If you're going to say nothing of substance for 90 minutes, you'd best make the time spent enjoyable.
It's kind of embarrassing how little one takes away from Bunny Chow. After watching the film, I struggled with even coming up with the last two measly paragraphs of dissertation about it. Three dudes get into a car and drive across South Africa. They run into weird stoner people and discuss how hard relationships are; once they get to their destination, more drugs and weird antics ensue; and then the film ends. No fuss, no muss—but no message, no meaning, no substance, no relevance. Bunny Chow feels like watching college road trip videos shot by strangers. It isn't quite torturous, but I sure wouldn't want to spend too much time doing it.
Shot in grainy black-and-white, Bunny Chow has style about it, especially in its surprisingly sophisticated and poignant cinematography. Black levels are okay, but not spectacular, but since the cinematography is often oversaturated, pairing blinding whites against blacks, black levels can vary in depth. Grain is heavy at times, and some screen door effect is noticeable, vexing the cleverest of upscaling players. For a low-budget film, the presentation is acceptable. Audio comes in stereo only and suffers some serious issues. Dialogue is a verbal puzzle of English, Afrikaans, and Tsoti Taal, making deciphering sequences challenging. Worse, the audio is muffled and poorly mixed against ambient noises. The film is hard subtitled in English, which is doubly unfortunate—there's no need for hard-coding subtitles in this day and age, and worse, the lack of control means that the film decides which sequences require the subtitling. Helpful when onscreen, but I found myself sorely missing having controllable English subtitles present throughout.
Extras are thin; we get some production notes, a director's statement, and a biography.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Forget Bunny Chow as a film. It is lousy and irrelevant. Instead, appreciate this DVD as offering a rare glimpse into South African life, even one stylized and contrived. The film features a dub soundtrack full of some great songs, and the handsome black-and-white cinematography paints an open and honest picture of modern-day Johannesburg, without frills or pretense. The landscape captured throughout the road trip is barren but unexpectedly vibrant. Bunny Chow is awful as a comedy, but if you ignore the entire plot, the dialogue, the characters, and the onscreen action…hey, at least South Africa is pretty nifty looking.
It is nice to see something different and lighthearted emerge from the South Africa cinema scene, but Bunny Chow just isn't funny enough or interesting enough to warrant attention. It is hard to escape the realization that the creators of Bunny Chow had much more fun filming the movie than any audience will have watching it.
An unremarkable comedic failure.
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• Director's Statement
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