NYFF: Notes on Tragic Jungle
Tragic Jungle was my final film of NYFF58 and it was a fun one to end on. Yulene Olaizola's 5th feature takes place in the 1920's on the border between Belize and Mexico. There, a woman named Agnes and her sister (who is a nurse), have escaped an English landowner whom she is supposed to marry. Both are shot by their pursuers, but Agnes is found by a group of gum farmers (who climb trees and tap them to collect their milky sap and then boil and form into blocks of gum). As the only woman in the group, she is immediately in peril, though one of the leaders of the group forbids any man from touching her.
When one of the gum collectors falls from a tree and dies, the voice over alerts us to the existence of Xtabay, a demon that protects the forest from invaders. At this point, Agnes becomes both the forest and Xtabay (maybe they are the same thing). And as the men try to rape the forest, figuratively and increasingly literally, the power of Xtabay is exercised, by Agnes or the forest or both of them.
With echoes of everything from Aguirre to Apichatpong Weerasethakul to Embrace of the Serpent to the thematic horror films of Jennifer Kent, Jordan Peele, and Ari Aster, Olaizola's film allows viewers to draw a wide range of parallels and potential influences. And yet, the film stands entirely on its own as what you might loosely call "arthouse horror." But even that label doesn't capture everything this movie is trying to accomplish.