Friday, July 19, 2019

Fantasia ’19: Mystery of the Night

Think of it as A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in Spanish colonial Philippines, but the forest spirits are very, very angry. Karma is a you-know-what for a privileged aristocratic family and a wronged feral woman will be the instrument of their destruction in Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr’s Mystery of the Night, which had its world premiere at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Without question, the most striking scenes in Mystery are the opening and closing shadow silhouette sequences that share a similar aesthetic vibe with the Lion King Broadway production, except they are considerably darker—of course.

Not surprisingly, it is all the fault of a hypocritical Spanish priest, who finds it rather inconvenient when a woman he impregnated starts heckling him in front of his church before masses. Believing she is insane, the wealthy mayor Anselmo agrees to abandon her deep in the forest during his next hunting expedition. He keeps his promise, but he returns home a cursed man—literally.

Years later, his son Domingo continues the family tradition of journeying into the forest most of the other Spaniards fear to enter. This time, he encounters the woman’s feral daughter, who was raised by the mythical spirits and wild animals of the woods. Her pheromones exert such a powerful influence over him, he forgets himself with her. He also forgets his wife, making promises to her he definitely shouldn’t. When his betrayal becomes clear, the forest orphan’s rage will manifest itself in supernatural ways.

Mystery is either hypnotic or sluggishly paced, depending on how indulgent you are. Visually it is quite striking and the forest setting is so evocative you can practically smell the underbrush. However, the film practically trips over its heavy-handed anti-colonialist message. Borinaga Alix and screenwriters Rody Vera and Maynard Manansala (who adapted Vera’s stage play) completely throw subtlety out the window.

Still, there are some cool effects and make-up, particularly the spirit with eyes (that open and close) all over his arms and shoulders. There are also some really grotesque bits that will impress gore fans. Above all, Solenn Heussaff really deserves credit for going all in as the feral woman. It is truly a wildly animalistic and highly sexualized performance. Frankly, the sum of the film’s parts is probably greater than its whole.

Arguably, Mystery is too artsy for its own good. A faster tempo and a little less sermonizing would bring its message to more viewers. Only recommended for high-end cineastes, Mystery of the Night had its world premiere at this year’s Fantasia.