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-[Film Reviews]-, Latin American Cinema

‘Tragic Jungle’ (2020): The Universality of the Femme Fatale

Directed by: Yulene Olaizola || Produced by: Pablo Zimbron Alva, Juan Herandez, Yulene Olaizola

Screenplay by: Ruben Imaz, Yulene Olaizola || Starring: Indira Rubie Andrewin, Gilberto Barraza, Mariano Tun Xool, Eligio Melenez, Gabino Rodriguez

Music by: Alejandro Otaola || Cinematography: Sofia Oggioni || Edited by: Pablo Chea, Israel Cardenas, Ruben Imaz, Yulene Olaizola || Country: Mexico || Language: Spanish, English, Yucatec-Maya

Running Time: 96 minutes

Two thoughts circulated through my mind after watching Yulene Olaizola’s Selva Trágica (“Tragic Jungle” in English): (1) The opposite reactions of critical and general audiences common to these sorts of slow-burn, atmospheric, metaphorical dramas, and (2) the universal nature of the femme fatale archetype in motion picture storytelling. The former dynamic is nothing new in cinephile culture; more introspective, allegorical narratives that emphasize mise-en-scène and creative framing over flashy dialogue to communicate visual meaning are favored by professional film journalists, as well as most cinephiles, but general audiences typically reject that style en masse. The latter groups often feel these quieter movies with heady themes are either (a) talking down to them, (b) too wrapped up in their own thematic content to execute a logical story arc, or (c) are short films artificially stretched to feature (80+ minutes) length.

Aside from that latter point of criticism, I tend to side more with cinephile and critical snobbery than general audience apathy and laziness, though both groups can find their heads up their asses if they watch enough films without judging said films on their own cinematic merit. What’s more interesting to me about Tragic Jungle, in this case, is how it depicts a femme fatale or “dangerous female stock character” in a Yucatan Mayan-Mexican context; to be specific, I find the similarities between its femme fatale portrayal and that of other film industries, Hollywood and Bollywood most of all, uncanny.

By the end of the film, our protagonist has transformed into a fully developed Xtabay who draws men into the watery depths of the Yucatan wetlands.

Tragic Jungle follows the misadventures of an indentured African-Belizean woman (Indira Rubie Andrewin) in the 1920s who, in order to escape an arranged marriage to her overseer-master (Dale Carley), crosses the border of the British Crown territory into Mexico. What at first appears to be a story about British colonialism and English-Caribbean slave society transforms into something even creepier, where Andrewin’s ostensible female lead, after a near-death incident during her escape, somehow metamorphosizes from an innocent, powerless victim into a predatory demonic entity.

In general, I enjoy most films that begin as one sort of narrative and then transition, however abruptly, into a different story (i.e. genre switches) so long as that transformation feels organic and the overall feature maintains tonal consistency (see also: Psycho [1960], Predator [1987], From Dusk Till Dawn [1996], The Talented Mr. Ripley [1999], Audition [1999], The Empty Man [2020], Malignant [2021], Fresh [2022]). How much these genre-shifts work is down to individual preference as well as diegetic context, because certain filmmakers can work with stock characterizations — like a femme fatale, for instance — to help their viewers navigate between different story formulas in the same feature. The difference between a creative, multitiered genre-hybrid that pulls the rug out from under its audience with aplomb and an indecisive mess depends on execution, or rather the talent of a given filmmaker.

I think co-writer-director Olaizola manages her narrative transitions well between Andrewin’s subtle performance and the screenplay’s focus on feminine power within different social dynamics. Once Andrewin’s escapee appears to get shot by Carley’s henchmen, she mysteriously awakens and then stumbles upon a group of ethnic Mayan gum (sapodilla latex, or chicle)-harvesters, who attempt to communicate with her despite their language barrier and thereafter argue about what to do with her. The patient viewer may notice small changes in Andrewin’s character’s personality here, where she becomes more sarcastic, sardonic, playful, and manipulative towards her new Spanish-speaking companions, who themselves act increasingly aggressive toward her as the story progresses. In essence, what appears to be another depressing endurance-test about historical human rights abuses a la Schindler’s List (1993), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Spotlight (2015), etc. turns into something way more interesting, touching upon universal concepts like feminine spirits who consume male characters due to the personal failings of the latter, something within the Yucatec Maya cultures known as the Xtabay.

What holds Jungle back is discussed at length in any Google or Rotten Tomatoes audience review, where numerous viewers complain about the movie’s slow pace and morbid, dreary tone despite its modest 96-minute running time. As much as I enjoy the well utilized tropical scenery of the film, not to mention the inventive structure of the script itself, I can’t lambast these responses too much given how deliberate Jungle’s storytelling feels; most of the story has a distinct cause-and-effect logic, sure, but the transitions between its main acts feel somewhat arbitrary even if I enjoyed the overall script’s genre-fluid structure. Some of audiences’ rejection of Tragic Jungle’s pace despite its short runtime may be a function of its dreamlike atmosphere, how it feels like a nightmare that proceeds at a snail’s pace and many of the character’s feel like ideas of people rather than, well, actual people.

Though we start our journey in Tragic Jungle with runaway African servants in Belize, our focus soon turns to Mexican and ethnic Mayan chicle-harvesters across the border.

Top to bottom, Yulene Olaizola’s third feature (she’s directed two other movies you’ve never heard of) is the sort of familiar yet transgressive genre-hybrid most audiences would never appreciate — or notice — without the modern streaming environment. It’s an interesting cinematic mixture of an unpredictable screenplay format and traditional femme fatale archetypes within a neat, often underappreciated historical setting. The movie’s few significant drawbacks, from its pace to its oppressive atmosphere to its at times bizarre performances, appear enough to limit the appeal of Tragic Jungle to all but the most passionate cinephile audiences; I’m afraid I can’t fully counterattack those criticisms because of my own initial lukewarm response to the picture, not to mention how much longer the film feels than it is. For those who have the patience, Jungle may well invigorate you thanks to the attributes described above, but for most others, I suspect the film will come across like a lighter version of how Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) did to me.

———————————————————————–

SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Defined as much by its shifting narrative perspectives and indigenous female legend as it is by its ominous rainforest background, Tragic Jungle argues that timeless, universal archetypes can thrive in all sorts of diegetic contexts.

However… if heady, introspective, thematically dense cinema gives you the willies, as it often does to me, then Tragic Jungle won’t convert you. The bulk of its cast’s performances are bizarre, the story progresses at a snail’s pace, and its depressing, grim tone ends the film on an unsatisfying conclusion.

—> ON THE FENCE

? So, was Andrewin representative of the spirt of those parasitized chicle-trees, the jungle in general, womanhood, or all the above?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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