The Filipino Aswang legend is spun into a proto-feminist tale of colonial-era rape and revenge in this atmospheric but turgid fantasy.
Prolific Filipino helmer Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr.’s latest big-screen endeavor “Mystery of the Night” is a supernatural folktale so beautifully atmospheric that one can almost overlook its escalating problems — for a while, at least. But this saga of an allegorical rape of Mother Nature by Western civilization, avenged by her forest she-creatures, eventually grows too humorlessly turgid to be as impactful as intended.
In the end, it’s an old-school Philippines cinema exercise in women weeping for the sins visited upon them by men, even if here the horror trappings allow for some payback. Those genre elements, as well as the film’s visual beauty, will be its major lure to non-Tagalog-speaking viewers.
After a brief flash-forward to climactic events, and opening credits that, in shadow-play style (performed by El Gamma Penumbra) illustrate the mythology of vengeful forest spirits (aka Aswang of Filipino folklore), the story begins in a provincial city of the colonial era about 200 years earlier. There, the local gentry are offended by the ravings of an apparent madwoman (Gina Alajar), who claims she was seduced and defiled by an alleged man of God. Irked that the accusation is “tainting the reputation” of the church is Father Barroso (Menggie Cobarrubias), who may have been her rapist. He urges the mayor (Alan Paule) to “throw that woman in the forest,” claiming she carries the devil’s son — as he oughta know.
Duly shackled and dragged into the wilderness on an ostensible hunting expedition, she’s left to die, though one soldier in the party (Neil Perez) expires first. He is presumed killed by a wild boar, but in fact he’s dispatched by a trio of witchy, shape-shifting forest spirits who claim the newborn child for their own after her mother dies in labor. Soon after, the dead soldier appears as an incriminating ghost before the mayor, driving him to madness and suicide.
Much later, the mayor’s strapping, now-grown son Domingo (Benjamin Alves) ventures off into the forest to continue dad’s hunting tradition. He soon encounters a feral, shamelessly naked but cautiously friendly young woman he dubs Maria (Solenn Heussaff) — dallying long enough to steal her heart, and maidenhead. (These scenes are like a sexed-up “Green Mansions.”) But Domingo’s already got a wife at home, to whom he eventually returns. And once scorned, a half-human, half-Aswang female has more than an ordinary woman’s worth of hellish fury to deliver.
Very handsome but slow-moving, “Mystery of the Night” works well enough, to a point, in its particular spin on Aswang legends as an indictment of sexist abuses both historical and timeless. Albert Banzon’s often exquisite widescreen photography does make the forest seem enchanted, amplifying a dark fairy-tale tenor.
But the film grows steadily more solemn and silly, its pacing so leaden that the finale’s burst of gore and fantasy FX comes off as more desperate than explosive. There’s so much visual atmosphere (as well as the sonic kind, thanks to cast member Radha’s primarily a cappella score), that it’s a pity the story itself generates so little tension.
And despite decent performances, the character writing and psychology are so heavy-handedly obvious, there’s scant poignancy to the tragic events as they unfold. Compared with the recent German “Hagazussa,” which brewed up a not-dissimilar stew of proto-feminist rage in a distant era to spellbinding effect, “Mystery” feels like a crude melodrama played out at ponderous half-speed.