With Ramsey Nouah’s “Living in Bondage: Breaking Free”, Nollywood comes full circle. Or does it?

The original Living in Bondage released in 1992, directed by Chris Obi Rapu is considered a Nollywood classic. Not because it raised the stakes time or broke new grounds in terms of filmmaking. As has been proven repeatedly, Nollywood operates entirely by its own rules and Living in Bondage was perhaps the first proof of this.

Produced and co-written by Kenneth Nnebue, Living in Bondage is considered influential today, its cultural relevancy set in stone, because it scored the distinction of launching the prolific, straight-to-video phase of film productions that were made predominantly in the Igbo language but relatable enough to be mainstreamed. No one saw it coming but the popularity of Obi Rapu’s film was such that even when it wasn’t the first film to go straight to video, it was the one that reignited the country’s film culture, launched a new generation of talent and laid the foundation for all of the progress of the last two and a half decades. Reports have it that the film has since moved about a million copies in sales.

Despite being a former British colony, Nigeria has historically, with regards to filmmaking and distribution, always been drawn to the unbridled capitalism of Hollywood as well as its famous studio system. In reality, perhaps this was the only option available considering there has never been a robust government grant or film subsidies system operating for any reasonable stretch of time. This commercial argument is all the more persuasive considering that since Living in Bondage, Nollywood’s growth has largely been as a result of the efforts of private industrious individuals. Successive government interventions are still unable to yield sustainable structures that can scale.

It comes as no surprise then that in 2019, Nollywood joins the likes of Disney to mine nostalgia and brand recognition for maximum profit. all the signs have been pointing to this. In the 27 years since Living in Bondage remapped the terrain of entertainment, Nollywood has gone from morality tales shot on video to spruced up, ambitious sagas imagined for the big screen. The progress hasn’t always been rapid or gear shifting. But it has been there all along.

What better opportunity to take a measure of how far the industry has come than to return to old favorites? And if revisiting the vault is going to work at all, perhaps it would be wiser to open with the film that started it all.

Ramsey Nouah, Nollywood mascot if ever there was one, alongside his producer, Charles Okpaleke of Play Network Africa must have been thinking along those lines. In choosing to revisit the saga of Andy Okeke, the impressionable fellow who trades his innocence and peace of mind for a chance to live the high life, Nouah and his team have struck on a valuable cultural commodity. It is a wonder no one’s thought of it before now. Watch the Nairas roll in.

Living in Bondage: Breaking Free is a sequel as imagined by first-time director- at least on this scale- Ramsey Nouah. Set some twenty-something years after the events of the last film, this glammed uptake isn’t your father’s Living in Bondage. The franchise has been reimagined for the social media generation. The ones that take a look at a film like Chief Daddy or The Bling Lagosians and decide to throw all their money at them. The ones who come to the big screen for escapism, to gawk at lavish displays of wealth while appreciating that these lifestyles are not necessarily within reach.

In its portrayal of the aspirational lifestyles of the criminally wealthy, instead of stacking up wads of Naira notes like Obi Rapu’s film was prone to, Nouah opts for depicting the kind of lifestyle that access to limitless amounts of money can create. The protagonist has 50 million wired into his account instantly. Chief Omego (Kanayo O. Kanayo) having secured his entire village under his palm, does the typical Nigerian thing and runs for governor. At weddings and at social gatherings, the characters throw dollars in the air, because Naira is so 1992. And what stupendously wealthy man deals in the local currency anyway?

The wealthy men- and women- of Living in Bondage: Breaking Free drive Ferraris and Porsches, fly private jets and party on a yacht off Durban’s coast. It isn’t just about having money, it is about what one does with it. Even the occultic theme has been gentrified with Ramsey Nouah, oozing charm and obviously having the time of his life, stepping in to replace the characteristically unsexy Dan Oluigbo as leader of ‘The six’, the exclusive cult that became blessing and curse to the film’s hero, Andy Okeke.

Andy Okeke (Kenneth Okonkwo reprises the role that made him famous) returns in Living in Bondage: Breaking Free and in some ways this film is about him. If the original film bequeathed Nollywood with a legacy of organized religion as the panacea to every outrageous plot twist, then Breaking Free continues this fascination with legacy. Some fella named Shakespeare once observed that the evil that men do lives after them but what does this mean for the children of these men and how do these offspring carry on with a tainted legacy they had no part in creating?

Andy Okeke is now a man of the cloth and has apparently spent the rest of his life trying to atone for his role in the events that led to the murder of his first wife, Merit. Content to live a life of abstinence tinged with flagellation, he has no clue that his second wife bore him a son just before she passed.

That boy is now the young adult, Nnamdi (newcomer Swanky JKA, pretty much announcing his entrance into the big leagues with his energetic, totally credible performance). When we first meet Nnamdi, he is a struggling charmer who refuses to let the big city get the better of him. He has inherited his father’s thirst for the finer things of life, plus the forwardness that has them both jumping into shark infested waters before careful consideration. When a business deal he was banking on falls through, he works himself into a self-pitying, desperate mood, ripe enough to kneel before Mammon once a timely interjected temptation sequence is activated.

Not that Nouah’s Mammon gives him much room to resist. The seduction of Nnamdi Okeke as outlined and executed by Nouah’s mysterious businessman, Richard Williams is almost total and complete, splendid in its precision and brutal with the aftershocks. Bank alerts, business contracts, fast cars, beautiful women and a Biblical inspired proposition at the top of a South African high rise. Followed up of course, with the promise of more to come. How can an ambitious young man resist?

With a title as obvious as Living in Bondage: Breaking Free, it is easy to see where the film is headed and Nouah working from a screenplay by Nicole Asinugo and CJ Obasi doesn’t depart much from the original’s broad outlines. After a shaky opening, the film picks up momentum when Nnamdi heads to Owerri to meet up with the parents who raised him. At the park, he is picked up by his brother, Tobe (Shawn Faqua). The two actors share an instant, affecting chemistry and their relationship is easily the film’s strongest bond, the only one whose interruption has the potential of genuinely shifting the film’s fun, flirty tone into darker territory. But taking care not to offend or depress his audience, Nouah’s film turns away from the brothers and the dark fate that hovers above them just when it gets intense, only to give Nnamdi a love interest played by a surprisingly light-footed Munachi Abii.

Arriving about midway into the film, the romance could easily have felt like an appendage but it works centrally because Swanky JKA is so damn irresistible and Munachi Abii as the supportive Kelly proves to be more than just a pretty face, finding the strength and character in a role that could easily have amounted to nothing. It is the film’s silent tragedy that it cannot quite trust its audience enough to work up to the themes of doom hinted at in the prologue.

Kelly may be likeable enough but she isn’t a doormat, neither is she the unrelatable paragon of virtue that Merit, Andy’s doomed first wife was. And all for what? Nothing. Updated for the post-feminist era, Kelly is a more developed and interesting character. She’s dated other men before Nnamdi and while she’s prepared to put in some emotional labour, she also knows when to quit.

Paying fan service while playing for new audiences at the same time can be a delicate thing to balance but Nouah does this admirably, handling the material with appropriate amounts of (read: too much) reverence. Breaking Free is also a stand-alone story while being a part of the franchise. This means that Nouah and his team will try to link past and present but will not sweat it when the knot isn’t as tight or as convincing as it could be. Andy Okeke is given a heroic welcome back on screen but in a scene set in a church that could have been a powerful send up of two Nollywood icons, Kenneth Okonkwo drops the ball, unable to rise to the occasion. Nouah too busy enjoying himself does not notice this.

Unchallenged by his co-stars and directing himself, Nouah coasts along on his charms and brightly lit presence, speaking as much faltering Igbo as he can manage. The rest of the cast is mostly solid with Kanayo and Bob Manuel Udokwu making brief, underdeveloped appearances. David Jones David as the crusading blogger hot on the trail of The Six is the one exception as his neurotic presence apparently wandered in from another film set, one where exaggeration makes up for a lack of skill. His sub plot is handled so shoddily that one can’t help but wonder if it is deliberate considering his preoccupation as a blogger.

Nouah’s direction is smooth if not quite confident even as he proves himself capable of handling a production on this scale. He presents a pretty enough picture with interesting cinematic flourishes (Eyes Wide Shut here’s looking at you) but like a proper Marvel picture, he cannot quite bring himself to commit to anything definitive. Breaking Free is funny when it needs to be, thrilling, nostalgic, emotional at times, eyeroll inducing and entirely unwilling to embrace the darker themes it constantly hints at. The screenplay is underdeveloped and overdependent on plot and is the kind that will force two unrelated characters to meet up if that is what it takes to get from point A to B. Zooming along for well over two hours, the film sputters to a middling ending brought upon by the need to set up another sequel.

What does Living in Bondage: Breaking Free say about Nollywood 27 years later?

Well, the days of films ending with religious zeal and a ‘’To God be the Glory’’ post script are over it would seem. Nouah’s Living in Bondage is still the epic battle between good and evil and while he allows one or two scenes of literal clashes, he wisely decides against making any of this the climactic sequence, all the while maintaining a playful wink that underlines it as a conscious decision. Breaking Free pays homage to old Nollywood, retrieves traditional elements like storytelling gusto and narrative power but downplays the over-exaggeration and literal interpretations.

With the impressive cinematography, improved sound, star heavy soundtrack, smart production design and involvement of Steve Gukas- all of these the result of a reported 200 Million Naira war chest, it is quite clear that the industry may be ready to put money into deepening the space. Return on investment is another thing entirely- not that Breaking Free has been slouching at the box office- but it would seem that there is a viable opportunity to be harvested in revisiting the early Nollywood ‘’classics’’ and adapting them for the big screen. All the elements are present, familiar IP, audience nostalgia, passionate filmmakers, improved technical know-how and access to bigger budgets. Will Nollywood bite the bullet?

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