Tragic Jungle

***

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Tragic Jungle
"The scoring from Alejandro Otaola reinforces the otherworldly elements but the action feels underpowered by comparison." | Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

There is a beguiling quality to Yulene Olaizola's historical drama, which has certainly charmed festival programmers this autumn, with the film premiering in the Orizzonti section of Venice before going on to find berths at San Sebastian and New York.

Set in the jungle that separates Mexico and British Honduras (now Belize) of the 1920s, things get off to a promising start. Firstly, there's the lush cinematography from Sofia Oggioni that highlights the natural and the wild. Then there's the sporadically used voice-over, which gives proceedings a poetic sweep and offers portentous observations, such as, "The jungle gives you plenty but takes from you also". The set-up also generates tension as a young British Honduran woman, Agnes (Indira Andrewin) and her sister Florence (Shantai Obispo), flee the much older white man Agnes is due to marry, prompting a deadly hunt for her.

Elsewhere in the jungle, a group of men are harvesting rubber - a trade that sees these chicoleros wreak a sort of violence on nature, hacking the trees until they 'bleed'. It is also dangerous, not just because of the height of the trees to be scaled but because the crop is valuable and the jungle deep and anonymous. Olaizola is striving to make the mythical marry the real but whispers about the Xtabay - a female demon who lures men to their deaths - remain frustratingly oblique.

While Agnes, who is found by the men, is evidently intended to represent the Xtabay - and the film has sharp points to make about the way that patriarchies tend to blame women for all the bad things that befall them, regardless of the woman's actual input - the writer/director never fully commits enough to the film's more mystical elements in the way that, for example, Jayro Bustamente's output does. Instead, the plot becomes mired in the much less interesting sweaty scheming of the men, who are trying to steal their rubber haul from their bosses but are becoming mentally strung out and physically lost as a result. As nature seems to close in on the chicoleros and death licks at their heels, Agnes remains opaque - the sexual heat never rising above a simmer, when it should be at boiling point.

The scoring from Alejandro Otaola reinforces the otherworldly elements but the action feels underpowered by comparison, with the arthouse treatment of the subject politely sedate in contrast to the film's potentially more savage themes. Olaizola certainly achieves a look and a mood but has difficulty in sustaining the latter in the face of action that doesn't walk far enough on the wild side.

Reviewed on: 10 Sep 2020
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Tragic Jungle packshot
Deep in the Mayan jungle, a lawless territory where myths abound, a group of Mexican gum workers cross paths with Agnes, a mysterious young Belizean woman.


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