If you were wondering how a harmless, lonesome, and poor cleaner could develop into an unwitting murderer with surreptitious moves while on a mission to find her husband who has been set free from prison, the South African series Unseen makes this happen. With the dark secrets of the underworld gradually exposed to the female protagonist Zenzi Mwale, fate makes her take on the stringent responsibility of nemesis in ways that seem less vengeful.
Most of Zenzi’s killings happen by mistake. Yet, she becomes the mechanism through which the death punishment is dispensed to deserving persons. As a character, she seems like a modern version of the classical Greek tragic figure Oedipus who is manipulated by unbecoming forces against his will to commit patricide and incest. However, unlike Oedipus, Zenzi lacks the charisma and nobility needed to be such an admirable personality and is not really influenced by a conspicuous tragic flaw. As much as her plight is capable of inspiring sympathy, viewers of this series would be less impressed by her often chaotic, sloppy nature. Her overall appearance, the untidiness of her apartment, and the lack of tact in dealing with dangerous elements prove this.
Perhaps the implied positive thing about her is the potential for risk, but even her gutsy moves are motivated by unwisdom. Why would you agree, as a woman, to visit a man like Enrico Booyson who has previously shown signs of sneakiness in a nondescript location? If they would have to meet somewhere not within the immediate environment to discuss the issue of accommodation, shouldn’t the venue be, for instance, a restaurant or any public outlet? Another incident that reveals Zenzi’s misguided confidence is towards the end of the movie when, after using the bathroom, she is easily led by a low-ranking police officer out of the station whereas she could have bluntly refused to follow him. “They asked me to move you,” the male officer only says, unconvincingly. What was she probably thinking at that point— that she would be freed that way? Zenzi could have read the handwriting on the wall.
When Zenzi eventually locates her husband, Max Mwale, in Caledon, Yazid’s hometown, we feel a sense of relief for her. Isn’t this search basically what has kept her peaceless? In the first place, we probably didn’t anticipate the reunion or hope that Max’s mystery disappearance would be soon undone. The directors play on our minds with the irony of this reunion: rather than the expected stability, more unease is brought to the Mwale couple as they must abandon their interest in the OCM bank scam and be on the run for their lives. Worse still, the reunion is a ruse, which makes us initially think the couple will be saved from the law and the predatory syndicate by, at least, an act of deus ex machina—only for us to experience the death of Max in some scenes away. In a good crime thriller, anybody can be unspared of the worst. This is what happens when Farouk, Yazid’s friend, is murdered by the bloodthirsty Raymond Hendricks. As much as we might want to feel for him, let’s remember he is no saint after all, that he could have gotten away with the criminal act of being an accomplice to Yazid’s blackmail agenda, had things not turned sour.
The South African series derives its impetus from the Turkish Netflix series Fatma which was released in 2021 and created by Özgür Önurme. Same as Unseen, Fatma has a socially underwhelming female protagonist who gets involved in unplanned murders during the search for her husband. One problem with this cross-breeding of ideas, couched in this case as film-to-film adaptation, is that any viewer of the earlier narrative might feel less inclined to see the adapted one. Or if the viewer has seen both, usually the first before the second, they are bound to be less impressed by the recent one. Good for the creative team behind Unseen, led by writers Daryne Joshua, Meesha Aboo, and Travis Taute, for Africanising an otherwise distant narrative, but it’s not too good that the film series might, in the long run, trail the shadows of the one from which it was scooped. However, still in the moments of frenzy, there’s been good news of the South African series faring well on Netflix. Weeks ago, it was reported the series hit a cumulative record 41.90 million viewed hours, reaching number 4 on the Global English TV Netflix rankings.
A little check and one discovers that the Unseen production company, Gambit Films, also created the 2020 South African teen mystery drama series Blood & Water, with actress Gail Mabalane starring in both series. The teen series was widely received enough that it caught the attention of American actress Gabrielle Union and brought glory to its lead actress Ama Qamata who secured an international nomination at the 2020 Series Brasil Awards. It is safe to infer that the reception of Unseen must have been partly influenced by the pull of its predecessor.
Unseen is a cinematic rehash of the saying “love doesn’t always win”. This comes true in Zenzi’s topsy-turvy marriage—economic hardship, a cheating husband, emotional estrangement due to her husband’s incarceration and disappearance, loss of a child, and life as a murderer and fugitive. Not much deep storytelling happens in Unseen, as the plot unravels in flashbacks and no real twist comes by. For instance, it could have been a different ball game if Naledi, Zenzi’s sister, was revealed as a top boss in the syndicate. The filmmakers seem to have trifled with the resource of this character, denying it the potential of something more momentous to the plot.
The series ends in a way that leaves us with two questions: Does Zenzi really jump off that height? Will it be her last breath? The answer, for now, is indeterminate and is best left to the discretion of the filmmakers. Films use cliffhangers to keep fans on tenterhooks, and it’s a bit of filmmaking politics too. Sometimes, it is as if the filmmakers are saying to us that they aren’t sure about Season 2 yet. It could be that, among other unknown factors, the fate of a sequel hangs on the commercial success of the first.
Unseen is available on Netflix. Watch the trailer here.