“Do not stop to look at the wilderness,” one of the ragged men in “Tragic Jungle” confides, busying himself on the zapote trees he’s been hacking away at with a machete. He doesn’t have anyone to talk to from the heights he’s climbed, whispering these admonitions so only the audience can hear as he extracts sap that can be turned into gum, a prized export from Rio Hondo, which runs between Mexico and Belize, the latter still known as British Honduras when Yulene Olaizola’s engrossing fifth feature unfolds 60 years before the country declared its independence in 1981.
In fact, “Tragic Jungle” is set when colonial rule had its greatest penetration, finding its way into the country’s deepest reaches where a woman named Agnes (Indira Rubie Andrewin) and her sister Florence (Shantai Obispo) attempt to escape the former’s plans for marriage to an Englishman, who dispatches henchmen to retrieve her. The pursuit drives Agnes towards the areas of the forest where only jaguars and those who toil away in the trees to extract gum dare to go, preferring the company of the latter even if they’re an untrustworthy bunch, coming to hatch plans to betray their boss Don Osenimo by selling their gum to smugglers who can give them a better deal. Between the Englishman who wants Agnes back and the Don who wants his money, the stage is set for no one to make it out of the jungle alive.
While there’s no honor among thieves, there’s an exception in seeing Olaizola pilfer the template for good ol’ fashioned westerns and reinventing it with a Latin America flair, mixing in a bit of mysticism as Agnes evolves from being the one taken in by the men to casting a spell on them, thought to be the personification of the mythic figure of Xtabay, a woman whose beauty leads men to their death. These being desperados, the director and co-writer Rubén Imaz offer little in the way of backstory for anyone involved, casting actors whose weathered faces say it all, but nonetheless their identity becomes subsumed by the tropical environment they try to find their way out of, with rapturous cinematography by Sofia Oggioni and immersive sound design extending that feeling beyond the screen.
With such an overwhelming central character, the lack of definition for the humans can result in some narratively questionable motivations among the group of tree-cutters, led by Ausencio (Gilberto Barraza), the most enterprising of the group, as they press ahead in the face of increasing peril, but Olaizola’s muscular filmmaking gives more than enough to hold onto even when the narrative can feel a bit slippery, summoning the sensation of being on the run in all of its sweaty detail. “Tragic Jungle” may live up to its title when it’s bound to not end well for so many scrambling to make the best of a bad situation, but it’s invigorating as a cinematic experience, making it impossible despite all warnings not to want to stop and take in as much as you can.