Studio: Producciones Verdebiche Sas.
Director: Jhon Salazar
Writer: Jhon Salazar
Producer: Jhon Salazar
Stars: Alex Adames, Caterine Escobar, Luis Fernando Hoyos, Patricia Tamayo, Jorge Herrera, Patricia Castano, Isabella Garcia
When an orphaned girl enters their lives, a Colombian farming family unravels a countryside conspiracy connected to witchcraft and goblins.
It wasn¡¯t easy to pull the trigger on ¡°City of Ashes.¡±
As a feature film selection for Screamfest 2019, ¡°City of Ashes¡± was slotted for a 9:15pm start time. This would take place after another movie that included a post-screening Q&A too. If you know anything about film festivals, you know they nearly never run on time, especially when a Q&A is involved, and especially as it gets later in the evening.
Not only that, ¡°City of Ashes¡± was paired with a 35-minute short preceding its presentation. Even without an anticipated delay from the previous show, this meant the movie wouldn¡¯t actually begin until maybe 10pm in the best-case scenario.
With Lana Del Rey performing at the nearby Hollywood Bowl on the same night, I additionally realized I¡¯d be driving through poorly timed gridlock in both directions. All of this just to be at the TCL Chinese Theatres until after midnight on a Thursday watching an unknown Colombian film that didn¡¯t even have an IMDb page. I won¡¯t deny I probably sound like a crank who can¡¯t handle ¡°oh, get over it¡± inconveniences. But the circumstances I just described weren¡¯t exactly instilling me with enthusiasm to give the movie a go when staying home with a screener would be infinitely simpler.
What I kept in mind was that I initially balked at ¡°Tumbbad¡± (review here) and ¡°The Unthinkable¡± (review here) for similar reasons during Screamfest 2018. Both were off-the-radar foreign films I knew nothing about. Both were wedged into timeslots that weren¡¯t ideal for me. And both ended up landing on my list as two of the top three movies of the year.
Begrudging rationality prevailed. I decided ¡°City of Ashes¡± would be my ¡°I hope this is worth it¡± dice roll for 2019. And as was the case the previous year, another fine foreign fright film with no prior pedigree humbly reminded me that sometimes, you simply have to venture outside your comfort zone to find something uniquely intriguing.
I¡¯m repeating myself from previous reviews, but my absolute favorite thing about horror films from other countries is that they expand my imagination with new pieces of foreign folklore. I¡¯m automatically engaged in culture-specific creeps and am less prone to zoning out because I¡¯m seeing unusual sights, scares, and am taken to places and times I couldn¡¯t otherwise go. ¡°City of Ashes¡± is naturally no exception.
When is the last time you saw a movie set on a Colombian coffee plantation? ¡°City of Ashes¡± takes place in an unspecified time period that could probably pass for any decade in the 20th century. Recently orphaned, Miriam comes to the farm to live with her aunt¡¯s family. Miriam¡¯s aunt Evilia seethes with resentment. To her, Miriam symbolizes the child she is incapable of giving her husband Antonio. Antonio¡¯s doting devotion toward Miriam only increases each day. To him, she is the surrogate daughter he has always wanted.
Evilia secretly seeks out village witch Alicia to perform ancient fertility rituals. That¡¯s a big no-no in her devoutly Catholic family. Antonio¡¯s widower father Ramon knows darkness invites misfortune. He recounts bizarre tales of a time when ¡®The Mohan¡¯ came for their countryside¡¯s children, and pigs were born with human faces.
Ramon and Antonio worry that time could be at hand again. Miriam¡¯s sudden convulsions suggest possible paranormal possession. When the sun refuses to rise for two days, they wonder if they¡¯ve invoked nature¡¯s wrath, just like the forsaken city nearby that few dare speak of. Alicia warns evil has already infiltrated Evilia¡¯s house. Now Evilia second-guesses the pact of protection made with an unseen entity who supposedly guards their safety.
The film is far easier to follow than that intentionally cryptic summary may make it seem. Given how thick it already is, ¡°City of Ashes¡± would have a hard time stuffing its script with any more legends or fright-filled fairytales. Yet the richness in storytelling achieved by integrating so many flights of fearsome fancy is precisely what keeps the movie so eerily enthralling.
Screamfest¡¯s bio for Colombian-born writer/director Jhon Salazar explains, ¡°when he was a child, his grandparents told him stories of witches, demons, and the undead who watched them from the darkness ¡ as an adult, he wants to share with the world all those fantastic stories that were part of his childhood and his culture.¡± True to intent, ¡°City of Ashes¡± stirs together a compelling brew of witchcraft, pagan sorcery, goblins, and South American superstition. Or, as Salazar himself cited, its style and themes meld a mixture of influences including ¡°The Omen,¡± ¡°Pan¡¯s Labyrinth,¡± ¡°The Exorcist,¡± and ¡°Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.¡±
Arguably, the mythology mish-mash gets to be too much of a good thing. The ending wades in slightly murky waters as ¡°City of Ashes¡± takes for granted that everyone understands its amalgamated incorporation of ¡®Mother Mountain,¡¯ ¡®The White Fairy,¡¯ and other references largely unfamiliar to North American viewers. Then again, this can be considered a credit to how much the movie thinks of its audience and their ability to maintain the same stride as the story.
Outside of some downturns in pacing that are necessary for revealing additional exposition, my only complaint on technical execution involves isolated instances of inconsistent ambient noise under dialogue and a few abrupt music cues. At the post-screening Q&A, director Jhon Salazar revealed his movie was fresh out of the edit bay, rushed right in under the submission deadline and we were the first audience to see it. I¡¯m thinking this criticism could be moot then, as I¡¯d imagine the movie might have a loose end cleanup before getting a wide release.
Simultaneously rooted in dreaminess and working class reality, ¡°City of Ashes¡± tells a fantastic cinematic fable. The actors, who are notable names in their native country yet unfamiliar stateside, are excellent from the top tier all the way down to each ancillary farmhand. Shot over five weeks on $250,000, that money goes a further distance by capturing country conditions, lush vistas, small mountain towns, and then polishing the entire production to have a multimillion-dollar appearance.
Cinematography doesn¡¯t distract with indulgent effects or movements. It doesn¡¯t have to considering how naturally attractive everything looks. Yet the camera comes up with coolly creative shots like a terrific crosscut where it passes worms writhing through a skeleton while rising from beneath the cemetery ground.
The appealingly uncommon yet accessible texture of ¡°City of Ashes¡± proves that as much as I¡¯d like to, you can¡¯t always lazily stay home in front of familiar-feeling flicks just because that is what¡¯s currently streaming. After all, why would a run-of-the-mill thriller be anything but ¡°another forgettable DTV B-movie¡± if that¡¯s all you ever watch? Distinctive films like this one reward those who go out of their way to get to it by beautifully, and bizarrely, broadening their horror movie horizons.
NOTE: The film¡¯s Spanish title is ¡°Pueblo de Cenizas.¡±
Review Score: 80