Imperial Blue – Film Review

Spanning 3 continents, Imperial Blue is an international tale of old world versus new world traditions from a moralistic, hallucinatory perspective. The eponymous Imperial Blue, also known as Bulu, is a plant of mythical properties which can be used for the forces of good or evil, but it has addictive properties. Imperial Blue embraces more than a typical drug smuggling thriller by exploring religious corruption, Ugandan village life and colonial practices which keeps the film engaging during some slow-paced scenes.

Bathed in blue hues to neon pink hues, Imperial Blue can best be described as a trippy, cautionary tale from the perspective of the westernised, hedonistic holiday maker as Bulu is an extremely addictive drug. However, Bulu also bestows upon its users the ability to view premonitions which leads Hugo, played by Nicolas Fagerberg, from sampling hashish in India to tracking greater sources of Bulu in Uganda for financial gains. Whilst Hugo may be the protagonist within Imperial Blue, once his path crosses Kisakye, one of the villagers, the dynamic within Imperial Blue shifts to explore the challenges that she faces, which is more compelling.

Hugo played by Nicolas Fagerberg in Imperial Blue
Hugo played by Nicolas Fagerberg in Imperial Blue

Imperial Blue had its World Premiere at the 2019 Raindance Film Festival and won the Best Drama Award at the 2020 The Philip K Dick Film Festival. The film employs local Ugandan actors and the role of Kisakye is a nuanced portrayal by Esteri Tebandeke. Kisakye is a diffident, Christian girl unwittingly thrust into the world of drugs to safeguard her ancestral land following the death of her father, the village Shaman. We are immersed within this conflict of religion and spirituality in the village as the local pastor threatens to seize such land and Kisakye attempts to fight for the land by any means necessary but views Bulu as ‘Satanic’. Under Dan Moss’ vision, in his second feature, such inner turmoil within Kisakye is a riveting development as cultivating and selling Bulu is a necessary evil for her, which elicits a captivating performance from Tebandeke.

Kisakye’s struggle highlights issues of sexism and emphasises the lowly position of women within the village. Impressively, there is a strong female presence within Imperial Blue as there are elder women villagers who represent the traditions and spirituality in the face of corrupting influences from the tourists, such as Hugo, seeking to exploit the natural riches within their land. Tebandeke’s sensitive expressions as Kisakye will certainly resonate with many that may have encountered invasion on their land from developers and others seeking to capitalise quickly.

For Kisakye, there is that conflict between assisting Hugo in his search for greater amounts of Bulu, to obtain money to secure her land, or assisting some of the local criminals to thwart Hugo’s efforts. It is a performance that is realistic and touching in equal measures, given Kisakye’s naivety, and Tebandeke will be one to watch in the future. Imperial Blue certainly conveys that aura of mystical realism throughout its length with mixed results.

Esteri Tebandeke as Kisakye in Imperial Blue
Esteri Tebandeke as Kisakye in Imperial Blue

That sense of mysticism, fantasy and the prophetic visions provide a dreamy aesthetic to the film. Several hazy scenes underline the beautiful cinematography of the panorama within the Ugandan fields that Kisakye introduces to Hugo. Clearly, there is an admiration by Moss of the beauty of such Ugandan surroundings with the camera lingering to embrace the stunning, natural settings. It is to Moss’ credit that such naturalistic beauty is emphasised instead of relying on CGI effects, providing perfect moments within the film just to pause. Such natural, traditional, moments are a welcomed, calming distraction from the mind-bending, drug addled activities engulfing Hugo’s modern world.

Imperial Blue’s representation of the spiritual practices of the Ugandan village are fascinating to watch and add that additional dimension to the film. These are elements that could have been expanded upon as an intriguing plot point as some of these rituals have been eroded in modern times or unfortunately displaced due to trespassers upon their land.

At times, the film does seem uneven as there are those marked contrasts in tone between the worlds inhabited by Hugo and Kisakye. However, such tonal shifts unflinchingly highlight those elements of colonial invasion whereby less developed countries are robbed of their natural resources, which is a danger still faced by some communities. Such subject matters felt as though they deserved greater development in the film within this context of drug smuggling.

Imperial Blue provides a unique perspective within the colonialism trope with a compelling focus on Ugandan traditions and the female sphere. Its realism concerning the village’s struggles amongst the hallucinatory scenes ensures that there is more substance within a film that will certainly invoke that sense of wanderlust to visit those stunning natural, Ugandan settings.

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