[Fantasia Festival 2019 Review] Mystery of the Night Uses the Aswang to Tackle Colonialism

Fans of Guillermo del Toro’s works understand the importance of horror in folklore and fairytales. Filmmakers can use folklore to examine societal issues and history through a lens that allows metaphor and embraces the horror of the historical events. Such is the intent of Rody Vera’s stage play Ang Unang Aswang, a story about the first Aswang, a Filipino demon that’s often represented as a woman with wings and usually a proboscis that sucks the blood or viscera from its victims.

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Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr.’s Mystery of the Night takes the stage play and envisions it as a two part story of generational trauma set during the Spanish occupation of the Philippines, circa the 1900s. The first part begins as a pregnant woman makes a bother of herself at the steps of the clergy, proclaiming that the priest raped her and left her with child. In order to get rid of the perceived nuisance, the priest enlists the help of Anselmo (Allan Paule), who is planning to make a pilgrimage into the nearby forest, to bring the woman with him and leave her.

Anselmo and his men leave her, bound to a boulder and in labor, in the middle of a rocky stream. The spirits of the forest, manifest in the form of women, howling like animals, look over the woman, unable to help her. The spirits represent specific animals. For example, one of the women playing the boar has multiple breasts running down her belly. While they can’t help the dying woman, they watch over the baby until she matures into a woman.

This is when the second part takes over as we find Anselmo’s son Domingo (Benjamin Alves) stumbling upon the naked and grown woman, now named Maria (Solenn Heussaff). The two find a carnal attraction in the forest and make love. But a betrayal sends Maria on a transformative journey of bloody revenge.

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Those looking for full-on horror will be sadly disappointed in Mystery of the Night, which takes its time to establish characters and intent before going full horror. It’s a slowburn folktale that’s basically about colonization and trauma that’s based down through bloodlines. The two act structure is important, as it establishes the way history has a tendency to cycle through horror. Anselmo lives in a world that’s been colonized by the Spanish and their tyrannical rule is oppressive and all-consuming.

But what’s interesting is when we’re introduced to Anselmo’s son as he’s wandering alone through the forest, gun and machete at the ready. It’s an image that conjures up cinematic representations of man conquering the unknown. Domingo becomes the colonizer, handed down through the generations of dealing with the Spanish rule, and Maria becomes the place he wants to plant his flag. He tells her no one else can see her or know about her. That he’ll come back for him. That she should wait only for him. He sees her as property, much in the same way that Spain saw the Philippines.

Adolfo and his cinematographer Albert Banzon film the events like an apathetic bystander, simply viewing what it can. In the beginning, a man is gored by a boar, but the camera simply focuses on a tree blocking the view before slowly dipping down as the man crawls into view. It’s dispassionate; a casual observer. At an affluent party later, it just stalks the room, taking in the laughing and grinning rich people, completely unaware of the traumas happening just outside. It brings this same approach to the sexuality between Maria and Domingo. The camera languishes on Domingo’s hard body as Maria stalks him like a jaguar, but if it captures nudity, it feels completely on accident.

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The entire feel of the movie feels staged, as befitting the play. There’s a kind of artifice to the presentation, and it’s here that I think the movie might lose viewers. It puts a lot of expectation on the women pretending to be the animals in the forest and feels one step removed from comedy. Additionally, while the final transformation and bloody revenge has some fantastic practical effects, the newly created Aswang feels very costumed. It befits the surreal, staged quality of the story and by this point you’re either with it or tuned out.

Ultimately, I was left amazed at the talent involved, from the music to the intent. It also includes some absolutely fantastic shadow puppetry in the beginning and end to tell the fable of the Aswang and the enchanted forest. But what I think it does best is challenge the notion of the Aswang as some monstrous evil. If it is evil, it’s because man made it that way.