There’s nothing quite like a frigid locale in which to commit murder. What is it about sub-zero temperatures and copious amounts of snow and ice that is just so irresistible to fictional murderers? Evidence melting away? Less chance of your crime being discovered until Springtime? White snow makes it easy to conceal dark deeds?
Whatever it is, it’s worked for countless iterations of the genre and set the scene for some of the world’s most successful TV series. But forget everything you thought you knew about crime scene locales – the swaying cane fields of South Africa is where it’s at in the compelling new South African noir crime drama Reyka.
Cane fields are not altogether new spaces for mystery and murder (see also Netflix’s Australian film Sweet River) but the sense of oppressive heat and ominous skies raise the noir bar in Reyka – and never more so than when a young victim is dragged off a well-worn path by an invisible assailant and swallowed by tall fronds.
Shot on location in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, Reyka begins in 1994. An atmosphere of freedom and hope reigns as the country ushers in a brand new president. Elsa Gama (Anna-Mart van der Merwe) is a hardworking journalist, dashing from post to post to capture the mood and celebratory spirit with her 12-year-old daughter, Reyka, in tow. For Reyka, however, the day marks the beginning of a harrowing nightmare that will change her life forever.
Reyka delivers yet another fresh iteration alongside its location – that of the troubled detective. Having endured a years-long nightmare as a child, adult Reyka (Kim Engelbrecht) is a complex and deeply traumatised individual, as well as brilliant and tenacious in her search for the truth as an investigator and criminal profiler.
After spending most of her adult life in the UK working for London’s Scotland Yard, Reyka has returned to South Africa, ostensibly to join the local police unit as a lead investigator. She is successful and well respected in her field, despite continuing to battle her personal demons of addiction and trauma.
Much like snowdrifts, the cane fields are adept at concealing sinister secrets, and when a local farm dog makes a grisly discovery, Reyka and her team realise that there is a serial killer on the loose.
It soon also becomes apparent that Reyka’s reasons for returning to her homeland are more complicated than they first appear. She is drawn back to the source of her trauma, one Angus Speelman, a calculating psychopath perfectly portrayed by Iain Glen (Game Of Thrones). Speelman is soon up for parole, and he manipulates Reyka into the unthinkable by taunting her with the promise of longed for answers, should he be released. Reyka’s ongoing relationship with Speelman adds another dark, tangled layer to her already overburdened psyche. He continues to ensnare her further during their visits, taking the opportunity to offer unnervingly accurate insights into Reyka’s ongoing investigation.
There are interesting parallels to be drawn with the political and social changes in South Africa that are also demonstrated within Reyka’s journey and search for answers. It’s evident in Reyka’s unorthodox relationship with her abuser, as she navigates her trauma and her difficult relationship with her own daughter.
The series also touches on the complex issue of land rights in South Africa and the delicate politics of land return to original owners – and those who seek to benefit from the corruption rife within the process.
“Reyka’s of mixed race, she has a complete feeling of being displaced,” Engelbrecht told Variety. “In a time of healing, she has absolutely no healing”.
Reyka is not for the faint-hearted. Directors Zee Ntuli and Catharine Cooke don’t shy away from extended, sometimes gruesome close-ups, but lovers of dark crime fiction will find their appetites for the grim and grisly well satiated with this compelling South African Noir.
Reyka is now streaming at SBS On Demand.