“Is this what it means to be with someone?”
This is the question posed by Michelle, the lead protagonist in The Man Who Cuts Tattoos (Owisu) when we first meet her. Her angst-filled musing aptly summarizes the film, especially as she asks this of herself right before she holds her palm over a lighter while playing a game with her boyfriend.
Much like in the real world, women seeking to start or maintain romantic partnerships in Owisu suffer greatly. The only exception is one of Michelle’s friend’s who has no problem getting a date. She goes clubbing, rolls blunts, plays matchmaker and guardian and takes Michelle to her pastor. But Nigerian filmmaker Michael Omonua’s slow burner relegates that freespirit to a sidekick role. The story instead revolves around Michelle and her counterpart, a young bride in ancient Edo. These women struggle with their society’s strict gender rules. Their worlds are quick to threaten or exact harsh penalties when their usefulness is in question.
There are no words of comfort for the bride in pre-colonial Edo. “New pain upon old pain,” says her mother—although she does halt a tattooing ritual when she notices her child is in extreme pain. Michelle’s boyfriend, America, isn’t supportive when he learns of her unplanned pregnancy. She loses a job not because of incompetence but because her boss deems her now unable to ‘rapport with clients’.
However, this film isn’t purely a tale of gloom. The Edo bride has a groom who handles her with care. In one scene, he gently runs his fingers over her newly-inked torso. The tattoos mirror his own. The idea is that the pain reminds the pair the importance of their commitment. And Michelle is a character with agency. Dumping America after nearly dying from a concoction he offers her, she manages to find a way back to herself. She gets a blue collar job to sustain her then pads her CV to secure a new office job. When the power goes out before her big interview, she walks a great distance to find a place to iron her dress and present herself professionally.
All these story beats reveal that Writer-Director Omonua is deeply empathetic to the plight of his female characters—the men too but we’ll get to that shortly. These depictions are quite refreshing, especially in African cinema. Nothing really falls into melodrama but the point isn’t what is expected of Omonua as a Nigerian filmmaker. It is what he is doing overall with the art form that is compelling. It is in the cinematography, the long takes and clever allusions. A perfect example is in the film’s lone sex scene which makes its appearance in a flashback and is handled tastefully. The picture moves from black and white to technicolor, characters freeze like mannequins in moments of passion as scenes replay themselves. Overlain with voiceover, the strangeness of the images matches Michelle’s fragmented memory from that night.
The film takes its time. It lingers. It requires patience. But it also asks and answers difficult questions about courtship both traditional and modern. Sure, the male characters are largely wanting (remember Michelle’s boss?) but even they aren’t all presented as gross caricatures and forced antagonists. When Michelle takes up with another man to make America jealous, the romantic rival reads the situation clearly and is immediately consolatory. He recognizes her pain more than his humiliation and desire. America himself has a revealing conversation with a male friend who contemplates taking back his cheating partner. And, the fuckboi gets his reckoning in the end but his personal growth is also self-evident.
Finally, it would be remiss not to mention how good the acting is and how natural the dialogue felt. Speaking both in Bini and Pidgin English brought such nuance and colour to the film. In fact, I suspect that last line was said in English to be purposefully obfuscating. If so, well done.