From the North American perspective, Filipino cinema (and to an extent Filipino culture) is largely unknown. Unlike the exports from Hong Kong, mainland China, Japan, South Korea, and to a lesser degree Thailand and Indonesia, it’s comparatively difficult to remain in the know regarding the Filipino film scene given that their endeavours don’t travel to North America very much. Augmenting the intrigue surrounding the world premiere of Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr.’s Mystery of the Night is that his film is heavily inspired by his native land’s folklore. Movies are generally an accessible form of storytelling and entertainment, yet folklore is not nearly as mainstream as cinema — so imagine the public’s lack of familiarity with folklore from the Philippines. Welcome to Mystery of the Night!
The setting is the year 1900, a time when the country was still under Spanish colonial rule. Viewers are at first greeted by a bizarre minute-long scene that presumably depicts a moment from later in the movie before a proper title sequence featuring silhouetted men, women, and animals relates the history of a nearby forest inhabited by fantastical shape-shifting creatures that protect the fauna and flora from invaders — namely humans. From there, director Alix Jr offers an elongated sequence that essentially sets the stage for what is to come: the town’s mayor, at the behest of the local clergyman, brings a seemingly crazed pregnant woman into the woods during a traditional hunt to sniff out, kill, and bring back one of the purported mystical creatures, as well as do away with the pestering woman. To say that things don’t go swimmingly would be a gross understatement. Suddenly, the picture flashes forward several years to depict the mayor’s grownup son (Benjamin Alves) honouring tradition by venturing into the woods to track an animal and earn a glorious welcome back in town. What he encounters is a stunningly beautiful mute woman (Solenn Heussaff). Of course, she is much more than meets the eye…
Explaining what happens in Mystery of the Night is something of a challenge. To the director’s credit, the film rarely holds the viewer’s hands, omitting explicit explanations as to what exactly is happening. Much is inferred through careful edits and very calm steady shots chosen at specific angles to depict just enough through sight and sound for a perceptive viewer to pick up the necessary clues. In that sense, the movie is an exercise of sorts, both from the filmmaker’s perspective as well as the audience’s. For the artist, the idea is to bring to life on the silver screen long-remembered episodes of Filipino folklore in such a way that will strike the audience’s curiosity, both in the director’s homeland and, one would think, abroad. By translating the story’s beats through the prism of a fantasy horror film, a very culturally specific tale may become accessible to a wider audience.
As for the viewer, the exercise is multifaceted. First, there is excitement about the prospect of diving into a whole new, unknown world. Unless one has been diligently doing their homework on Filipino folklore, there really is no way to guess what the film has in store. Second, by way of Alix Jr’s deliberately slow, meticulous direction, the audience is asked to luxuriate in the uniquely bizarre nuances and details characterizing this world. One of the spirits that dwell in the woods takes the human form of an old woman with eyes on her arms and cheeks; this physical attribute is never elaborated on, although the creature’s personality appears to be somewhat calm and maternal, suggesting that she, well, sees things clearly. That’s but one of many details that are simply shown to the audience, removed of any dumbed-down exposition.
The effect is one that certainly sports some ups and downs. On a positive note, it is refreshing to witness a movie from a confident director that believes in the power of its subject matter so much that if successful, the film will win over audiences for its sheer strangeness — its exoticism, if you will. The visuals can be quite stimulating at times, and at other times terribly shocking, On the downside, Mystery of the Night is in no rush to set the story in motion. While the picture is ultimately the tale of how a young man maltreats a creature from the forest — with the latter striking a furious vengeance in retaliation — it takes a long, long time to arrive there. The analogy is simple enough, considering that the story is set during an era when Spain held dominance over the country, but the setup is convoluted and gets into details that don’t always relate to the story, but nevertheless might excite people interested keen on Filipino history.
To be fair, when the beautiful beast from the forest concludes that her man has betrayed her (although it’s no secret that he never intended on keeping her around anyways), the movie adopts a gloriously ghoulish horror attitude for its final twenty minutes. To what degree computer effects enhanced some of the shots is somewhat difficult to ascertain, but suffice to say that the makeup work is excellent. As far as concocting memorable, freakish images, Mystery of Night has an ace up its sleeve reserved for the climax. The caveat is that it can be a slog to reach that point.
When analyzing movies, one of the strongest adages is to discuss the film one watched rather than the film one imagined in one’s head. All the same, one wonders if better pacing would have graced Mystery of the Night if less time was spent with the father in the early goings, therefore introducing the grownup son earlier, and by extension awarding the picture with more time to develop his relationship, so to speak, with the woman from the woods.
Thankfully, the pacing issue doesn’t completely ruin the experience. Director Alix Jr.’s depiction of a strange, imaginative folkloric chapter is still worth a watch, even though audiences may need to stock up on patience before entering.