Mystery Of The Night


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Mystery Of The Night
"Even those elements that will seem most unlikely to audiences unfamiliar with aswang mythology are carried with conviction and grace." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

By the time the Spanish took control of the Philippines in 1565, the islands had already endured several centuries of conflict and political turbulence. What made the Spanish conquest different was that it brought with it a rigid Catholicism which refused to tolerate the existence of other religions as Islam had previously done. As in so many other countries, those pushed to the margins took refuge in the deep forests which were increasingly shunned by adherents of the new civilisation. There, the forest spirits who had once been allies came to seem like a terrible threat. That the original mythology has survived at all is testament to the dedication of generations of storytellers who preserved it through oral transmission and through shadow puppetry, with which this film is bookended. Way before the advent of cinema, groups of people would gather to watch the stories play out on a bright, flickering screen.

Legends of aswangs seem to date from around this period. The Spanish identified them as the most feared of all the supernatural creatures in local folklore, but it's difficult to say how much of this stemmed from their connection to a belief system directly at odds with core aspects of Catholic culture, especially in relation to female sexuality, pregnancy and motherhood. Adolfo Alix Jr's film sets out to create an origin story for the aswang but opens with a situation that could just as easily occur today: a woman cast out by her community after insisting that her unborn child was fathered by a priest.

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Following this incident, a child grows up in the forest. There's no human mother left to her. She's raised by spirits: a boar woman, a woman whose whole body is covered with eyes. Feral and mute, she makes an interesting contrast to the lead characters in Pollyanna McIntosh's Darlin', which is also screening at the 2019 Fantasia International film Festival - where the danger in them is immediately apparent, she's a shy, skittish thing, moving warily through the undergrowth like a prey animal.

She's wise to be cautious. When she spies a young man beside a river her curiosity leads to her getting close, and he's quick to seize her, responding to her nakedness as all too many men would. Her submission to this and the attachment she forms to him will make some viewers immediately uncomfortable but the actors carry it. Without language, they convince us that these two strangers both come to believe, in the space of just a few days, that they are falling in love. But the young man has a wife back in the town, and before long it becomes clear where his priorities lie.

Along with the spirits, we look on as a familiar tragic narrative unfolds. This time, however, it's replete with the legacy of colonialism, the transformations that take place seeming to pass comment on more recent Filipino history. Even those elements that will seem most unlikely to audiences unfamiliar with aswang mythology are carried with conviction and grace, inviting emotional buy-in rather than trading on their strangeness.

An impressive example of cinema encapsulating strong cultural elements yet communicating them effectively to an international audience, Mystery Of The Night is a film whose haunting quality stems from its human drama and thematic weight rather than its supernatural spectacle. Not everyone raised on Western cinema will successfully engage with it but much of what it has to say is universal.

Reviewed on: 16 Jul 2019
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A film about Spanish colonial rule and aswangs.

Director: Adolfo Alix Jr

Writer: Adolfo Alix Jr, based on the play The First Aswang by Rody Vera

Starring: Solenn Heussaff, Benjamin Alves, Gina Alajar, Elizabeth Oropesa, Allan Paule

Year: 2019

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: Philippines


Fantasia 2019

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