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Mystery of the Night
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by Jay Seaver

"That's certainly a lot of rage."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Everybody's folklore is kind of messed up, but this movie makes it feel like a competition that the Philippines could win. It's a simple but impressively nasty combination of colonial horror and local legend, giving the audience what they've come for, albeit on a scale that may be a little too grand for what the filmmakers have to work with.

It starts with a town's mayor, Anselmo, going out to the forest to hunt, doing Father Parorozo a favor by taking a ranting, pregnant woman with his party and perhaps not being too concerned if she returns with them. A generation later, his son Domingo (Benjamin Alves) makes his own trip to the woods, where he discovers and makes love to a beautiful but feral woman who was raised by the forest spirits after her mother was killed by an angry sow. She is spellbinding but Domingo must eventually go home. "Maria" (Solenn Heussaff) follows him, but she has no more been prepared for the fact that a man who has been so attentive on his trip out of town may have a wife and child at home than she has been taught to walk on two feet. She reacts badly.

That's kind of inevitable, once you've seen Solenn Heusaff's performance leading up to that, which is a no-holds-barred take on the wild child tope that's kind of impressive in that it still has a sort of fantastic authenticity despite the fact that she's got to play things a little more broadly than one might necessarily have to do in order to stay ahead of the rest of the cast, which isn't exactly being restrained themselves. It's an enjoyable physical performance, unabashed in its sexualilty - the filmmakers tend to treat shame and denial as worse than actual sexual activity - and always a nice complement to what Benjamin Alves is doing as Domingo, whether he seems earnestly smitten or casually dismissive when he gets home and decides it can't continue. He does a nice job getting between those states, too, not making it feel like a switch has been turned or like Domingo had been dishonest before.

It's generally a niftily-staged movie, especially if you kind of like movies that don't worry too much about hiding that they were shot on a soundstage, or particularly worry about monster effects being realistic. That theatrical style merges well with the nice bits of shadow-puppetry bookending the main story, and there's a fine score. The fact that the story is generational becomes a bit of an issue, in that the first half is necessary but is in many ways doing much more to put things into place for later than for itself, with Anselmo feeling like a footnote even before he's brushed aside. The second is fairly casual, which works well for the dialogue-free stretches but not quite so much when consequential actions seem shrugged off with "that's just how it is/was". It's tough to get both right, though, and this movie does a good job of maintaining a tone while still allowing for shifts.

But, then, that's what mythology often is - didactic, straightforward, and far more packed with sex and violence than you remember from grade school, driving simple lessons of morality home in ways that leave no room for argument. Here, the forest spirits themselves appear to be a little shocked at the mayhem that they are part of, with a final scene that suggests they might warn the next foundling about boys. They're not really opposed to carnage, but this was kind of a lot. It's fascinating to see this mythology directly interacting with colonialism - Maria raised by the culture's primal spirits because her family has been expelled, both seduced by and fighting those who have chosen to work with the invaders.

It's an interesting take on familiar material, sometimes feeling like a discovery from a previous era or medium, and perhaps a bit more peculiar than some may go for.

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originally posted: 02/09/20 04:30:12
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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