Mystery of the Night (Misterio de la Noche, Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Mystery of the Night poster“There is nothing mysterious about the forest”, a traumatised traveller tries to tell himself, “only darkness”. Darkness is indeed a major theme of Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr’s adaptation of the Aswang origin stage play Ang Unang Aswang, only this is darkness born of “civilisation” rather than its absence. The forest is mysterious, but largely because it is home to essential truths few now wish to see and are perhaps afraid to face. The evils of colonialism retold as folktale, Mystery of the Night (Misterio de la Noche) spins a less than ancient genesis for the iconic Philippine monster but hints at its origins in the darkness of the human heart.

In the early 1900s the Philippines was still firmly in the grip of Spanish colonial rule in which the Catholic Church and entrenched aristocracy remained all powerful. The tale begins when a young woman raped by a priest is condemned to the forest as the barer of a “Devil’s Child”. Though she rails and curses all around her, Mayor Alselmo (Allan Paule) consents to drag her into the wilderness as part of his own rite of passage, during which one of his men is killed. The woman, abandoned to her fate, gives birth alone but the effort costs her her life. The baby, meanwhile, is adopted by the forest dwellers of whom the civilised city folk are all so afraid. She grows up and meets a handsome young man, Domingo (Benjamin Alves) – Alselmo’s son, himself intent on exploring the forest’s mysteries. Nature takes its course, but Domingo is a young aristocrat with a wife and future in the city. Like many men, he takes his pleasures lightly and coldly rebuffs his forest bride when she comes calling on him in the austerity of civilisation.

Alix begins with a cold open flashing forward to the film’s conclusion before pulling back to introduce us to the world of the forest spirits, now pushed to the margins by the encroachment of the Spanish. To the Spanish, the spirits of the forest are frightening, demonic apparitions which threaten the primacy of their religion, dangerously undermining their hopes for peaceful, integrated governance. The forest spirits, however, may see themselves as “protecting” something, less the forest than a kind of ancestral essence slowly being eroded by outside influence.

“Nothing hidden remains unrevealed, no secrets are kept forever” Anselmo mutters to himself as he contemplates what the forest has taught him. He has been complicit in his own downfall, covering up the clergy’s crimes by abandoning a “crazy” woman to the forest in an effort to avoid dealing with her accusations or their evidence. The forest will give up its secrets, or at least take its revenge, on those who thoughtlessly pollute its darkness with the light of civilisation. The spirits maybe may be primitive, but they are not cruel – the baby’s life is saved only through their kindness and grows to maturity thought their careful nurturing.

Then again, according to the conflicted Domingo, the forest has its own logic and a belief different from the civilised. He wants to keep the forest’s secrets and protect the essence of existence in the belief that the mystery will complete us. When confronted by that mystery on his own terrain, however, he coldly rejects it in service of his civility. He brings back only atavistic violence and internalised shame along with his longing for something more innocent than the sophistication of his aristocratic position.

Scorned, “Maria” (Solenn Heussaff) as Domingo has named her, transforms into something else. A creature of rage and fear she screams into the night in grief for all she’s suffered at the hands of a fiercely patriarchal society which so cruelly killed her mother, broke her heart, and destroyed the safety of her world. The easy freedom of the forest has been corrupted by perverse civilisation which wields “morality” like a weapon and insists on authority that gives it the right to oppress. A grim parable of the destructive effects of entrenched colonialism, Mystery of the Night finds true horror in the most primitive of places – human weakness, greed, and hurt turned in on itself as a self-defeating act of protest against systemic cruelty. Beautifully dark, Alix’s shadow play spins a sad story of nature red in tooth and claw vs muted humanity, hauntingly ethereal and infinitely strange.


Mystery of the Night was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Teaser trailer (English captions)

Chedeng and Apple (Si Chedeng at si Apple, Rae Red & Fatrick Tabada, 2017)

chedeng and apple posterWhen you feel you’ve discharged all your social obligations, you might feel as if you’ve a right to live by your own desires. Whether the dreams you abandoned in youth will still be there waiting for you is, however, something of which you can be far less certain. Following the death of her husband, one Filipina grandma decides to find out, taking to the road with her best friend who is, incidentally, wanted for murder and carrying around the severed head of her late spouse in a Louis Vuitton handbag belonging to her vacuous step-daughter, in search of the one that got away.

Chedeng (Gloria Diaz), apparently plotting the death of her sickly husband, is shocked to find him already gone when she takes him his breakfast. Shielded by the window which places her in the crematorium and her children outside it, Chedeng decides to make a shock announcement that comes as no surprise to her supportive best friend Apple (Elizabeth Oropesa). Standing front and centre and with intense determination, she announces to her grown up sons that she is a lesbian and will now be embarking on a more authentic life. Her sons are scandalised. Despite the fact that her youngest son is gay himself (and slightly hurt that his apparently supportive mother had never thought to share her own conflicted sexuality with him), the other two cannot get their heads around it and assume their mother has had some kind of mental breakdown.

Meanwhile, Apple whose life has been far less conventionally successful has been married to a wealthy but violent and abusive husband for the last five years. Praying furiously for his demise through black magic, she eventually snaps and kills him. Calling Chedeng for help, the pair dismember (in full view of the “discreet” maid) and bury the body (save for the head which Apple insists on keeping, and his penis which she can’t resist nailing to the wall and ruining the perfect crime in the process). With both their husbands out of the picture the pair decide to go on the run to look for Chedeng’s first love – a woman called Lydia for whom she had promised to return, only that was over 40 years ago.

At heart Chedeng and Apple is a story of liberation. The two women have been consistently impeded by men who prevented them from living the lives they wanted to live, trapping them within the patriarchal system of the conventional family. Chedeng, a serious and earnest woman, has prided herself in conforming so completely to the social role expected of her. A straight laced schoolteacher, she married well and kept a fine home raising three sons and supporting her husband who apparently knew she was gay and just accepted it. With her children grown and her obligation to the man she married at an end, she finally feels herself free to be her true self. Apple meanwhile has had the opposite experience in a series of unfulfilling relationships with useless men on whom she blames (rightly or otherwise) her inability to pursue her dreams of becoming an actress. Finally ending up in an abusive but economically comfortable relationship, she eventually has no choice but to free herself through violent means.

A pervasive sense of melancholy haunts the film as it becomes clear how much Chedeng has suffered in sacrificing her authentic self to live the life society expected of her. Lydia, the lost love of her youth, was braver – she dreamt of escaping to an island for a simple fisherman’s life in which she and the woman she loved could perhaps live together wanting little more than each other’s company. Chedeng, conventional as she is, could not imagine it and, though she vowed to return and reclaim her love after going to the city, she has waited 40 years and fears it may be too late.

Yet the resolution to her problems isn’t found in romance but in the depth of the friendship she shares with the loose cannon that his Apple – a woman her total opposite who follows her desires to destruction and freely speaks her mind little caring what anyone else may think about it. The spiky banter between the two women has an authentic, lived-in quality that brings a degree of realism to the often absurd adventure and proves a comedic counterpoint to the heaviness of the issues. Warm and oddly hopeful for its aged protagonists, if lamenting that they had to wait so long to achieve their “freedom”, Chedeng and Apple is at once a fierce condemnation of an oppressive, misogynistic society and a joyful celebration of friendship and liberation.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)