'Tragic Jungle' Review: A Moody Environmental Fable With Teeth [NYFF 2020]

“Unfortunate you, if you cannot understand the mysteries of the jungle…”

There’s a Mayan myth of the “Xtabay,” a female demon said to dwell in the forest who lures men to their deaths with her incomparable beauty. Described as having lustrous, shining black hair that falls to her ankles and wearing a white dress, the Xtabay is an intriguing figure in Mayan folklore who has been everything from prostitute with a heart of gold, to a vengeful spirit of a fallen woman, depending on the storyteller. In Yulene Olaizola‘s lush, sweaty Tragic Jungle she’s a slave on the run from her lustful white master and the enigmatic embodiment of the film’s ecological rage. Part feminist revenge film, part environmental cautionary tale, Tragic Jungle is a bloody fable that posits that the mysteries of women are as deep and impenetrable as the jungle…and just as deadly.

Set in the 1920s in the Mayan tropical rainforest along the Rio Hondo (at the time, the border between Mexico and British Honduras, now Belize), Tragic Jungle follows Agnes (Indira Andrewin), a young woman who flees with her sister from the cruel white British landowner who wants to marry her. But when her sister and their guide quickly get killed by the armed men hot on the trail, and Agnes becomes mortally wounded, the jungle apparently absorbs the beautiful young woman to become its avatar for revenge against the many men who dare to drain the forest of its treasures.

The treasure in question is the sap that oozes from the jungle’s many gum trees, which Mexican gum workers harvest for their wealthy bosses on the other side of the border. The gum workers stumble on Agnes — covered in blood, and having donned her sister’s nurse uniform— and take her in, convinced that the foreigner must either be a nurse or a spy for the Englishmen who have been eying the thriving gum industry. But one by one, the gum workers grow obsessed with the beautiful Agnes, but her bewitching allure comes with a deadly drawback: each man who approaches her — either to comfort her, protect her, or more commonly, attempt to rape her — ends up dead.

Agnes, who had been completely mute since the gum workers took her hostage, had quietly transformed into a deadly tropical nymph who spills the blood of men in return for the sap and bark and gum that has been stolen from it. Though at first she appears to be introduced as a perpetual victim, first by the white landowner who coldly guns her down, then by the gum workers who only see her as an object to attack, Agnes unassumingly transforms into the arbiter of punishments for both the jungle and wronged women, reversing the expected narrative of these kind of Heart of Darkness-esque films.

In recalling that of Joseph Conrad’s deeply troubling book about the corrupting, primitive nature of the unknown, Mexican filmmaker Olaizola sneakily grapples with the effects of imperialism in a bold and novel way. The jungle exists beyond the law, beyond the revolutions brewing on either side, beyond reality — it’s a hellish dreamscape through which the oppressive heat and strange, lingering darkness hangs heavy. But unlike its cinematic spiritual godfather Apocalypse Now, Tragic Jungle sides with that mysterious jungle — as captivating and deadly and untouchable as its avatar, Agnes, the new vengeful Xtabay. Men and kingdoms will come and go, but nature will remain — its roots maybe growing more distorted and poisonous, but entwining itself to wrap around the world.

A searing fable brought to rich, tactile life by cinematographer Sofia Oggioni, Tragic Jungle is a direct reversal of the imperialist tragedy, using its sexual politics and colonialist underpinnings to chart out a contemporary mythic cautionary tale.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

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