Yulene Olaizola’s Tragic Jungle

Indira Andrewin in Yulene Olaizola’s Tragic Jungle (2020)

In Yucatec Mayan mythology, the seductively beautiful female demon Xtabay lures men who dare to wander into her neck of the woods to their deaths. Tragic Jungle, the fifth feature from Yulene Olaizola, sets its tale in the early 1920s along the border between Mexico and what was then British Honduras before Belize gained its independence in 1981. Some critics have willingly given themselves over the film’s lush ambiance, while others find that it doesn’t deliver the generic thrills it seems to promise at the outset. Having premiered in Venice and screened at San Sebastián, Tragic Jungle will play at the Brooklyn Drive-In on Friday, when it becomes available virtually nationwide as part of the New York Film Festival’s Main Slate.

Agnes (Indira Andrewin), twenty and dressed in virginal white, is on the run with her sister and a guide from Cacique (Dale Carley), an aging British landowner determined to marry her. Having chased them down in the tropical rainforest along the Rio Hondo, Cacique has his men open fire on the escapees, and all three drop. A wandering band of chicleros, workers who harvest gum sap, discovers Agnes unconscious but strangely unscathed. From this point onward, Tragic Jungle “seduces you away from the legibility of its premise so gradually that you don’t realize you’ve lost your bearings until it’s already too late and the whole movie has gone mad with at least one kind of lust,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich.

One by one, the chicleros succumb to Agnes’s allure, and one by one, they pay with their lives. Tragic Jungle, cowritten with producer Rubén Imaz, “never becomes a full-on horror film,” writes Jake Cole at Slant, “but Olaizola engages with indigenous legends and colonial history across a story where misogyny is turned against the patriarchy in ways that recall recent genre offerings like The Witch. Compared to that film’s turn toward the outright macabre, though, Tragic Jungle operates in a dreamier, more ambiguous register.”

But for Glenn Heath Jr. at the Film Stage, the film often “comes across as impenetrable and incomplete with immersive dream sequences that rarely make an impact and a grinding synch score that feels completely out of place in this meandering Herzogian scenario.” At Cineuropa, David Katz agrees that “the final result has a desiccated feel, like the hollowed-out sapote trees prominent in the plot, and it exhausts its storytelling momentum long before the end.” In the Hollywood Reporter, Jordan Mintzer adds that “the performances by the generally nonprofessional cast tend to be uneven and can stretch credulity in places, even if they lend certain scenes a documentary-like flair. What Olaizola does best is create an atmosphere of almost mystical uncertainty at times, setting her film in a place where the frontiers between countries, cultures, reality, folklore, past and present are in constant flux.”

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