Set in the stunningly shot south-western sea-side village of Cedros, Trinidad, Vashti Anderson’s Moko Jumbie (2017) tells the story of a young woman, Asha, who has returned to the Caribbean from the UK, seeking to reconnect with her history, her family and her childhood spent in Trinidad. In the end, she is haunted by the past, and entangles with the curtain between reality and the supernatural.
DISCLAIMER: This review contains some spoilers
There is a glimmer of a very compelling story somewhere within the murky Festival cut of Vashti Anderson’s Moko Jumbie. However, the potential for a visually eccentric, avant garde, Trinbago art house showpiece seemed clouded by confusing direction choices and a very unfocused story trajectory. This was further over-seasoned by incomplete plot twists that left one dangling on the edge of every beach-cliff in Cedros.
One of the stronger features of Moko Jumbie was its casting.
When Asha (Vanna Girod) arrives at her aunt Mary’s home, she is gifted an heirloom necklace selected from a cache of family accessories. The connection between Asha and her female ancestors is further amplified by tales of each woman, explained in storytelling verses by her eccentric Uncle Jaggesar, played poignantly by Dinesh Maharaj. ‘Jaggesar’ charmingly scurried in and out of scenes with candid eagerness, often whispering conspiringly with Asha, offering beautiful colloquial prose containing profound family anecdotes, parables about life and ‘old talk’ about living in a Cedros of the past.
Aunt Mary, played admirably by Sharda Maharaj carried a heavy air of wary-eyed watchfulness, seemingly fueled by her deep distrust of the Afro-Trinbagonian neighbours living in her old family board house across the street.
Notable performances also came from the perfectly cast Melvina Hazard in the role of ‘Gloria’, a chain-smoking mystery wrapped in obeah, who exuded a nonchalant authority on camera, bemusedly tolerating Mary’s pretentiousness while beguiling Asha with sweat-rice recipes and man-trapping advice.
Roger, a fisherman and the youngest of Gloria’s two sons, was played by charismatic newcomer Jeremy Thomas, who exuded a compelling mixture of carefree bushman and wild, teen angst, immediately capturing Asha’s attention.
Class and ethnic struggles that have ever been a part of Trinidad’s identity are well explored in the film. The house across the street, its Afro-Trinbagonian occupants and Asha’s curiosity in them took up a majority of screen time. What followed was a Romeo/Juliet storyline, which had its own humourous charm – at first.
While out on a date, Roger and Asha encounter a dark figure roaming the streets. The dark figure is repelled by Roger who reveals his hidden connection to the supernatural world and his destiny to protect Asha’s soul from nefarious possession. A somewhat sudden and awkward introduction to the fantasy/folkloric element of the film, but a believable enough indication that the veil between reality and the spirit world had been compromised in some way.
Then came the entrance of Moko Jumbie.
The impact of Moko Jumbie’s appearance on screen was immediate and chilling. The styling of the portrayal created a striking impression, shifting the tone of the film much more effectively into pore-raising supernatural/fantasy territory. His purpose in this film? Still somewhat unclear for this reviewer.
The tension of the film then escalated with Asha beginning to suffer fever-induced dreams, night sweats and sleepwalking. All the while, it was fairly challenging to glean from Girod’s permanently wide-eyed approach to acting whether Asha was suffering any internal conflict, any growing concern for her own irrational behaviour, any self-awareness that she may be descending into madness or perhaps imagining it all.
The writing also faltered near the end of the film with several seemingly unnecessary subplots introduced and abandoned just as quickly, along with a few other head-scratching moments that distracted from the main narrative.
The change in pacing of the storytelling also left one confused but still somewhat entertained. The dialogue intoned onward, slowing down through awkward, cryptic exchanges between characters, offering no further clarity as to why any of this was happening. The visual landscape grew more tangled and ethereal, with time jumps, jarringly cut scenes and dream-like sequences that presented the action through delirious snap-shot moments shown mostly from Asha’s point of view, which could be considered an unreliable but still reasonably engaging perception of reality.
Trapped in a gripping but thoroughly perplexing crescendo of inexplicable events, one was shoved toward an ending that relied heavily on an investment in the chemistry of the unstable relationship between Asha and Roger as a ‘solve-all’ conclusion to the preceding chaos. The young lovers clasped hands on a sandy beach in the shadows of a stride of Moko Jumbies, cavorting in a beautiful beach sunset. End of film.
‘Moko Jumbie’ dabbles in powerful spiritual themes, boldly confronts class and ethnic stereotypes and seduces with beautiful visuals of Trinidad. The film reaches ambitiously toward fusing our folkloric heritage into a relatable, supernatural love story, which is admirable. The performances are solid and the trip is eventful and fun to watch. However, the film seems to get lost along the way, hampered by too many plot holes and an unfocused approach to tone and intent. One might also consider the title of this film as mysterious as its ending.
TL; DR – Beautifully shot, some decent acting but what does it mean?? ☹
Credit: Thanks to Triston Wallace for the feedback and to Kriston Chen for the correct collective noun, “stride of Moko Jumbies!”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A passionate advocate for the arts and the creative industries, Janine Charles-Farray is a Marketing Strategist and Publicist with seven years’ experience working in the Trinidad and Tobago Creative industry – primarily in Film, Music, Fashion and Dance. Janine has a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of New Brunswick, Canada and a Masters Degree in Marketing from the University of the West Indies/Arthur Lok Jack Graduate School of Business. She is a freelance Entertainment News Writer and a watcher of local films who occasionally shares what she feels about them.