Fables and mythology are universal languages throughout human history crossing time, geography, and culture with cautionary tales about behavior and consequence. From Aesop to religious books, these stories are used to teach lessons and impart wisdom in the hope that others won’t make similar mistakes in their own lives. One constant through many of the darker tales is the theme of revenge carried out by those who’ve been wronged, and it’s here where the new film Mystery of the Night finds its purpose and power.
The Philippines in the early 20th century is a country under a tyrannical Spanish rule with religion playing its frequent role in the cruel occupation. Spanish priests live among the “heathens” in an effort to spread the word of their god, and for many of them it’s an opportunity to subjugate the locals and take what they want along the way. One member of the clergy impregnates a Filipino woman and has her sent into the woods to die. She survives, though, just long enough to give birth, and the spirits of the forest raise the girl child as one of their own. Years later, a young man named Domingo (Benjamin Alves) from the nearby village spots her naked form among the trees, and the two soon enter into a carnal relationship. He has his own proper life back in town, though, with loyalties and a pregnant wife of his own, and when he finally discards Maria (Solenn Heussaff) as just another conquest it’s one injustice too many for the young woman birthed from such pain.
And you know what they say about scorned women. (They get shit done.)
Mystery of the Night is a beautifully crafted, slow-burn fable mashing together powerful forces like magic, love, and revenge into an animalistic display of passion and punishment. Director Adolfo Alix Jr. and writer Maynard Manansala have adapted Rody Vera’s play (Ang Unang Aswang) into a haunting and unhurried tale that envelops you slowly and completely before unleashing gory hell. True to its origin on the stage — as well as to its budget and intent — there’s a meticulous artifice to its presentation, but what it avoids in realism at times it delivers in sensual wonder and audacious effect. Seriously, it goes places in the third act.
The film balances two threads in its tale — there’s a broad condemnation of invaders occupying a land and people under the guise of compassionate religious conversion, but the focus is the wronging of a local woman and the circular justice that follows. Domingo’s bloodline has blood on its hands, and the wrath his actions earn are payback for generational horrors. It’s a variation on narratives we’ve seen before, but the history and horror here are specific to Filipino culture giving the film a unique identity and power. Alix lets the story breathe including long stretches free of dialogue where only the visuals and Radha‘s evocative music and vocals take hold of our senses, and it works to create a world destined for destruction.
The original fable behind the tale involves animal spirits raising the human child, but here the characters are native women who call the forest home. There’s purpose to the idea both because actors are cheaper than effects and because it’s ultimately a story about women. They’re the creators of the species, the only ones capable of creating life, but that doesn’t prevent them from taking lives too. The animal spirits include wild boars and owls, and they’re personified here in a grunting woman and a wise elder with more than two eyes watching the world around her. There’s some digital trickery involved with the latter, but it’s effectively crafted to blend in.
Gorgeous shadow play introduces and closes out the tale, and it underlines its stage-like presentation. Exteriors are frequently real, but rather than feel like a movie it feels like a story being told to us. That doesn’t prevent it from achieving scenes of raw power, eroticism, and savagery though as Maria and Domingo’s naked couplings are set against natural backdrops suggesting Eve and Adam before the fall. That eventual fall is a stunner, too, despite budgetary limitations, and as the film shifts into its aswang phase it comes with some truly memorable sequences.
Heussaf is best known as a model and is undeniably beautiful, but while she’s nude throughout all of her scenes she’s more than just a sexual being. Maria has no dialogue and instead “speaks” through sounds, expressions, and movement, but Heussaf never stumbles in her effort to communicate. Lust, confusion, rage, and sadness all come through, and it’s impossible not to feel her suffering. Her third-act descent involves visual effects that are at times raw in their execution, but while the imagery risks laughter out of context her emotional overload and trauma instead combine with the f/x to create a surreal, old-school nightmare that honors the region’s long history of supernatural cinema.
Mystery of the Night lulls viewers in with sensuality, simplicity, and sin, but it goes out with madness and visceral horror. Its message is ultimately a simple one, but the magic and mystery are in the telling.