It's a Vine Life
by Nicholas Russell
Dir. Yulene Olaizola, Mexico, Netflix
There are multiple versions of the Yucatec Mayan myth of the Xtabay. A creature in the vein of the Greek Sirens, Xtabay is either a woman whose cruel heart eventually condemns her to life as a demon, or an extant supernatural being who lures men to their death with the promise of sex. Yulene Olaizola, writer and director of Tragic Jungle, collapses these two variations and pulls the legend into the 20th-century forests along the Rio Hondo between Mexico and British Honduras (modern-day Belize).
Olaizola’s camera is subsumed by the forest, which she presents as by turns verdant and treacherous. Shots of gum workers—chicleros—suspended high above the ground hacking at trees whose cleaved bark looks like fresh mammalian scars are juxtaposed with lush, sweating foliage and barbed vines that forebodingly twist and curl. In this seemingly impenetrable landscape appear Agnes (Indira Andrewin) and her sister Florence (Shantai Obispo) as they flee the white Englishman Agnes was set to marry. One iteration of the Xtabay myth features two sisters, one promiscuous and hated by the village, the other celibate and pure. Florence represents the former, Agnes the latter as shown in a short scene where Florence seems to be trading sex for safe passage from their male guide.
In her retelling, Olaizola elides the moral judgments of a larger community punishing a woman’s sexual life in favor of foregrounding that woman’s reasoning and choices. When Agnes asks her sister what it’s like to be with a man, Florence scolds her for not marrying the Englishman, whom she could have manipulated and taken advantage of. Tragic Jungle could be viewed as an allegory for misogyny, sexual exploitation, colonialism, and mankind’s degradation of the environment. What’s actually presented in the film is far more nebulous. When the Englishman and the black laborers he enlists to assist him (it’s unclear if they are hired help or servants) find and shoot Agnes and her sister, a shift occurs that takes the film into this slippery, looser direction. Florence dies, and Agnes is found wounded by a band of chicleros harvesting gum for their unseen boss. For days, the men have been working in hazardous conditions, scaling trees and fielding unpredictable weather as their harvesting season comes to a close.
The men behave as if, at any moment, they could assault Agnes. Upon awakening, her demeanor gradually changes (Western audiences might conjure up similarities to Snow White). At first scared and disoriented, especially by the language barrier between her and the men, Agnes soon takes on a more alluring, sly personality. As the group travels through the jungle, interspersed shots of the trees and crowded plantlife are meant to draw parallels to Agnes. Whether she’s an embodiment of, an extension of, or a literal part of the forest is unclear. Has Agnes transformed into the Xtabay? Her gunshot wound seems to have disappeared completely, and she does not speak again after the chicleros take her captive, even in an attempt to be partially understood. As it becomes apparent later, she is also no longer afraid of the prospect of sex with men; at points she seems to welcome such advances. In her film debut, Andrewin portrays Agnes with a mild expression that changes minutely from fear to curiosity and not much else. In another film, the use of non-actors—as Olaizola does for the chicleros—could have lent a documentary-like imperfection and authenticity that enhanced the atmosphere; here, it just stops short of becoming distracting.
Tragic Jungle is best approached with fairy-tale logic in mind. Olaizola hints at the possibly supernatural nature of Agnes’s transformation by vacillating between the perspectives of the chicleros and their leader, Ausencio (Gilberto Barraza). One of the group sees her walking on bird-like legs. Another follows her away from camp at night beneath a towering tree in a dreamlike sequence where everything is awash in blue moonlight. During the day, the chicleros labor and plan to abandon their unseen boss in favor of selling their hard-won cache of gum to more lucrative buyers. The ethereal night sequences and the tactile, tangible details captured during the day feel as if they are from two very different films.
Yulene Olaizola affirms a feminist reading of Tragic Jungle. To Variety, she said, “When I found out about the Xtabay, I knew I could have a female character in a more mystic way. I could touch upon those social themes—as well as the idea of female empowerment—in a more abstract manner and have two different characters—the jungle and the female character—that would cross paths and become one.” The film’s gender allegory feels incomplete. If this band of men are meant to represent, as Olaizola says, “the humans trying to steal its treasures,” why are their methods shown to be sustainable? For one, the ways in which the chicleros extract sap from the jungle’s sapote trees has been used for generations, leaving the trees to heal until the next harvest. For another, their attraction to Agnes seems pointedly unnatural, and their subsequent behaviors unrecognizable as those of real people.
Throughout the film, it’s clear that the forest, as fashioned by Olaizola, is meant to be a sentient entity, but it’s also a largely ambivalent one. As for Agnes and the myth of the Xtabay, the notion of female empowerment gets lost because, apart from her presentation, she is not necessarily a person. She is little more than an object, almost a MacGuffin, a point of interest around which the men in her vicinity become ensnared. Beyond a glance, she mostly just exists.
Without a consistent presentation of the men with whom Agnes is embedded—some of whom are more virtuous than others, but all of whom meet a violent end—nor a clear idea of why the Xtabay manifests when and where it does, the most tangible reading that remains is a thinly shaded depiction of the racist, capitalistic, and opportunistic forces that are reshaping the way of life in this area of Central America. Allegories maintain their strength when the correlation between the symbol and the subject is made legible. Olaizola attempts to imbue her story with ambiguity and social awareness, and Tragic Jungle is a visually splendid experience, filled with imagery that, on its own, calls to mind the beauty of nature and how we are destroying it. In the end, the English colonists have survived, while the only men who have met violent, tragic ends are brown and Indigenous. Why the Xtabay would focus on exploited laborers who are clearly under the thumb of a larger, more nefarious capitalistic force, remains an unsettled question.