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VENICE 2020 Orizzonti

Review: Tragic Jungle

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- VENICE 2020: Adapting the classic Mayan legend of the Xtabay, rising Mexican helmer Yulene Olaizola creates a taut but disappointing jungle-set thriller

Review: Tragic Jungle
Indira Rubie Adrewin (right) in Tragic Jungle

Part of a generation of films updating and critiquing the classic colonial adventures of yore, Tragic Jungle [+see also:
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is Yulene Olaizola’s fifth feature, and marks her first premiering in the official selection at the Venice Film Festival. It made its debut last week in the Orizzonti section. This beautifully shot but simple story is a morally instructive tale, warning against human interference in the natural world. Still, the final result has a desiccated feel, like the hollowed-out sapote trees prominent in the plot, and it exhausts its storytelling momentum long before the end.

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Temperatures in Venice were scorching throughout the festival, but they were no match for what Olaizola and DoP Sofía Oggioni are able to contrive in their film, shot on location in 2K digital. Their chosen setting, a territory overlaying the Río Hondo river on the border between Mexico and Belize, is in equal parts inviting and terrifying. Brooding jungle vegetation strikes a blinding emerald hue, and the hulking rainforest trees sometimes look as if Tim Burton had animated them. Setting the story in 1920, but showing no great fidelity to period detail, the filmmaker and co-screenwriter Rubén Imaz devise a chase narrative which grinds to a static halt in its third act. Not content with realism, they also incorporate the Yucatec Mayan myth about the female demon, Xtabay, a forest-dwelling spirit intent on luring interloping men to their deaths.

The plot brings together two divergent groups of characters, whose exact motivations will spell each other’s ends. First, a young Belizean woman, Agnes (Indira Rubie Adrewin), flees upriver with her sister Florence (Shantai Obispo) and their guide Norm (Cornelius McLaren). They are escaping an enraged British trader and suitor of Agnes’s, outfitted in those sheer-white colonial duds that just spell “evil” in these films. He has guard dogs on patrol, yet his bark is somehow louder. The alternate faction are a group of Mexican labourers, mostly from an indigenous background, who are entrusted with harvesting and preparing trade-ready rubber for a mysterious chieftain. Agnes eventually finds safety amongst this all-male party. She’s worshipped by her new guides as a rare beauty, and sexual tensions rise to the fore.

Tragic Jungle wins most favour in its documentary-like passages. The first scenes are set with the labourers attached to the aforementioned sapote trees, carving criss-crossing scars amidst the bark so that a thick white sap can ooze out of the trunk. One poor worker falls to his death, and it looks horribly authentic, like the similar opening scene in There Will Be Blood, another important film dealing with man’s lusting over the Earth’s resources. Then the camp of workers begins the manufacturing process to make the gum or rubber harden, and the result is like the bulbous fat on the side of a steak. Olaizola has made acclaimed documentaries in her past career, and this is where her formal command impresses most.

But the music, oh the music. Never failing to remind us we’re watching a genre-inflected art film, the sound mix is interrupted by some unwelcome electronic synth-judders, which are so in fashion now. A chase film needs to start from A and at least hint at the existence of B, but we become narratively and physically stuck in one place. The terrifying English party is forgotten, and the labourers are forced to contend with their libidos and their patriarchal anger over Agnes’s likely mythological heritage.

Still, Tragic Jungle does provide some excitement surrounding Olaizola (she was also selected for the prestigious New York Film Festival), establishing herself alongside Michel Franco in an overall strong year for Mexico at this year’s Venice.

Tragic Jungle is a co-production between Mexico, France and Colombia. It was produced by Rubén Imaz and Yulene Olaizola for Malacosa Cine and Pablo Zimbrón Alva for Varios Lobos. Additional producers were Birgit Kemner and Philippe Gompel for Manny Films, Óscar Ruiz Navia for Contravía Films, Zoología Fantástica and Barraca Producciones. The world sales are handled by Varios Lobos.

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