Yulene Olaizola’s Tragic Jungle begins with Mexican chicleros scaling and notching huge trees to collect their sap. As the men hack away with their machetes, the zigzagging patterns they leave on the trees bring to mind injuries of flesh and blood, an impression underscored by the pinkish living part that’s revealed beneath the surface of the bark. Though this practice of collecting gum sap dates to the Aztec and Mayan empires, the sight of the workers silently and miserably toiling for their boss feels like a demonstration of the unfettered agency of colonial capitalism, and as the milky sap trickles down the paths carved by the machetes, the trees suggest victims crying out for justice.
Tragic Jungle is set during the 1920s on the border of Mexico and present-day Belize (formerly British Honduras), it mainly follows a group of Mexican chicleros who, in the course of their work harvesting tree resin for chewing gum, come across a solitary, English-speaking woman named Agnes (Indira Rubie Andrewin). Fearing that she might belong to a competing British crew, they take her along forcibly, not knowing that she had just escaped from a vengeful white landowner (Dale Carley) whom she was supposed to marry, and who is still in hot pursuit. More ominously, perhaps, intermittent narration from one of the chicleros (Mariano Tun Xool), tells of Xtabay, a siren-like female of Mayan legend. Needless to say, things do not seem promising for any of the men involved.
Tragic Jungle also focuses a lot of its energy on reiterating the relationship that man shares with nature. Whether it’s finding things to stay alive or in death – everything happens in nature and we all go back to it. The film talks about the inherent bond that we share with it – and thus, nature can take away and give as it pleases. Additionally, we also realize that the men are very lost in the jungle in a bid to go over to the Mexican side. However, instead of focusing on the men’s ordeals or problems, we are almost always focused on Agnes. Director Yulene Olaizola makes sure to tell us that the men are falling right into nature’s, as well as Agnes’s, trap. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Tragic Jungle does not lack visual beauty: shot on location, it displays Olaizola’s background in documentary, as well as some deft compositions. What’s missing, though, is a genuine sense of danger, a feeling that things might spiral uncontrollably. The film rightly depicts various forms of exploitation (environmental, patriarchal, and colonial), but it fails to convincingly convey the primal impulses thrumming beneath, which tend to dissipate into slackly edited scenes and ponderous lines like “the jungle gives you plenty, but also takes a lot away.” More conceptual than intuitive, Tragic Jungle offers the problem without the passion: a journey into the heart of darkness without the thrill of the unknown.
Final Score – [7/10]
Reviewed by – Ritika Kispotta
Follow her @KispottaRitika on Twitter (https://twitter.com/KispottaRitika)
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