“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.
Teaser trailer (English captions)