Dir: Oliver Schmitz. South Africa. 2001. 94 mins

A compelling focus on black identity in the new South Africa, Hijack Stories marks a welcome return to feature films from director Oliver Schmitz 14 years after his award-winning debut Mapantsula. The generally polished handling of topical, thought-provoking material means that it has been worth the long wait and the new film should follow its predecessor in becoming a familiar figure on the festival circuit. Modest theatrical prospects are also possible although it may suffer an identity crisis of being considered too slick for arthouse audiences and too demanding for the multiplex mob.

The issue of identity and the fuzzy blurring of the distinction between reality and fantasy is embodied in the character of Sox (screen newcomer Tony Kgoroge). A middle-class black actor, he harbours a desperate desire to become South Africa's answer to Wesley Snipes and sets his sights on the role of a hardboiled gangster in a popular television series. His first audition is a disaster; he carries no sense of the streets with him and singularly fails to impress. Refusing to give up on the role, he naively drives to the township of Soweto seeking childhood friends and relatives who are living the kind of edgy lives he is seeking to portray. As gauche as a stranded extra-terrestrial, he barely escapes violence from the people who resent his move to the white suburbs and desire to integrate into the new world order. He is soon dubbed Mr Rainbow Nation but is granted access to childhood friend-turned-underworld criminal Zama (Rapulana Seiphemo) who eventually agrees to show him the ropes.

As Sox spends time with Zama and his gang and begins a relationship with a young woman in the township, he is forced to reconsider all that he has abandoned in the race to pursue a glorious future far from his family roots. The search for some sense of who he really is and where he belongs is cleverly manipulated by Zama who constantly tests how far he will go to enhance his audition piece. One evening, Sox is asked to join the gang for a night of car theft and gun play in which there will be no observers, only participants. From that moment on there is no turning back as he embraces the gangster ethos.

Structured around chapter headings like The Soweto Boy and The Final Lesson, Hijack Stories is a stylish piece of storytelling that puts the excitement of gun fights and car chases at the service of something more meaningful than mindless action movie cliches. It many ways it carries echoes of Boyz N The Hood, Clockers and the films that tried to dramatise the experiences of young African-American men and their divided loyalties to community, self and nation. The comparisons may be to the film's advantage in securing it US distribution. Sox's journey from clue less bourgeois actor to hardened township villain is shown in his successive audition pieces where we witness the changes in his walk, his stance and his whole manner as real life experience supplants the actor's limited ability to make believe. It may be an obvious and simple dramatic device but it is no less effective for that. Stumbling a little in the editing, the film is otherwise smoothly presented and attractively photographed as it depicts the callous, consumerist side of affluent post-apartheid South Africa and the townships in which class, history and anger still create a powerful force of opposition to the compromises and iniquities embraced by Mandela's children.

The influence of western culture and movie violence is treated as a fact of life with Zama and his gang taking their cue from the films of Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone. Overt political issues don't suffocate the human story and Schmitz keeps at least one ironic twist for the final frames as Zama makes his own journey of discovery, grabbing an opportunity for change that is only too fitting in a country seeking to forget its past and re-invent itself for the future. Although some secondary characters, including Zama and Sox's girlfriend Grace, are a little sketchily drawn and the film has its flaws, this is a worthy successor to Mapantsula with Schmitz confirming his ability to present the sights, sounds and politics of South Africa to a world audience.

Prod co Schlemmer-Septieme

Int'l sales UGC International.

Prods Christoph Meyer-Wiel, Philippe Guez

Co-prod Nadine Marsh-Edwards

Scr Oliver Schmitz

Cinematography Michel Amathieu

Eds Oliver Schmitz, Derek Trigg

Prod des Carmel Collins

Mus Martin Todsharow

Main cast Tony Kgoroge, Rapulana Seiphemo, Moshidi Motshegwa.