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Before a single concise image manifests, the setting of Tragic Jungle is fully palpable. The chirping of birds is drawn out by a cacophony of colliding sounds, composer Alejandro Otaola’s ghostly drone taking over and reimagining the blurred textures of greenery in an almost synesthetic experience. Suddenly there’s a violent intrusion; a pounding noise breaks the natural harmony, signaling humankind’s interference. Like in most adventure fiction, the tension between man and nature is clear. But director Yulene Olaizola attempts to expand these well-trodden paths.
Set along the Río Hondo in the wilds of the Península de Yucatán during the 1920s, the film follows Agnes (Indira Rubie Andrewin), a young woman of indigenous and African descent seeking to escape an arranged marriage with a white landowner. A violent confrontation leaves her meandering the treacherous mangroves before some chicleros (gumtree workers) are drawn to her. After they take her in, an increasingly turbulent relationship ensues wherein the distinctions between myth and reality blur. The Mayan legend looms of the Xtabay, a succubus who lures men into the jungle to certain death; masculinities crumble when opposed by unfiltered and untamable female sexuality.
Olaizola’s focus is never circumscribed by traditional plot concerns or character development. Her intent is clear from the first time a tree is shown red and wounded after being carved up. She’s depicting the jungle as a tangible and sensual organism, one with yearnings and grievances that push it toward direct intervention. The immensity of the wilderness is asserted in each frame of cinematographer Sophia Oggioni’s vigorous compositions. Overhead views and wide-angle shots constantly minimize the chicleros tirelessly working on the chicozapote trees, their gasps and mutterings failing to overcome the overwhelming throb of an indifferent landscape. The myth of Xtabay is detached from its patriarchal connotations and reframed as an extension of the jungle’s active retaliation against hierarchical forces (men, colonialism, capitalist exploitation).
What hampers this approach, however, is how Tragic Jungle retains some vestiges of the canonical “heart of darkness” stories. Its depiction of the jungle still feels like one of otherness, an abstracted and undetermined “green hell” that isn’t much more detailed than most early 20th-century Western literature. The narrative may take its side, but there’s never an attempt to rethink the formal approach as an opportunity to engage with a novel worldview that goes beyond generalizations. The opening line is, “I pity you for not understanding the mysteries of the jungle.” But despite inhabiting the tropical rainforest for most of its runtime, the same uncertainty seems to pervade this film.
Tragic Jungle is available on Netflix.