Saturday, 28 May 2016

Mystics In Bali (1981)

Director: H. Tjut Djalil
Screenplay: Putra Mada (novel), Jimmy Atmaja (scenario)
Cast: Ilona Agathe Bastian (as Catherine 'Cathy' Kean); Yos Santo (as Mahendra); Sofia W.D. (as Old Leák Queen); W.D. Mochtar (as Machesse); Debbie Cinthya Dewi (as Young Leák Queen)

Synopsis: Travelling to Indonesia, an American woman Cathy (Bastian) is assisted by a local who is her boyfriend, Mahendra (Santo), in finding a witch who can teach her black magic for a research paper on the subject. Her training however turns her into a puppet for the witch who can transform her at will into a Penanggalan, a vampire whose head detaches from the body leaving a trail of entrails hanging off the severed neck, the head sent off to feed on the blood of pregnant women and devour their still unborn children so the witch can vicariously gain immortality and youth. Can Mahendra and his religiously pious uncle stop the deaths and what will become of Cathy?

One of my biggest compulsions is to see horror and fantasy stories from around the world. Mythology is an obsession which fits my other obsession, cinema, like a hand in a silk glove, bleeding into genre storytelling greatly and allowing one the curiosity of seeing how legends and bogeymen are depicted. With Mystics in Bali you have a representation of the Penanggalan, a completely unique figure not found in Western mythology as it's shown; floating heads and skulls are common, but the details of the entrails dangling from the neck and the connection back the body, not to mention the vampiric detail involving pregnant women, makes the mythological creature stand out greatly as something idiosyncratic to its country of origins. It's as much seeing another country's culture onscreen, even if liberties have been taken for the transition, as much as seeing genre tropes filter through the introduction of such a peculiar monster to the wide audience.

Mystics In Bali as a film turned out to be disappointing in some ways after hearing of it years ago - one of the many curiosities from around the world I learnt of and became desperate to see including its fellow Indonesian films like The Queen of Black Magic (1981) - only to find out viewing it that it's more of a garden variety horror film than one which lets the mythology take the plot into some interesting directions. This could turn out to be like another Indonesian film called The Devil's Sword (1984) where it took more viewings to appreciate it, but it's a surprise how truncated and minimal Mystics In Bali in terms of an actual narrative. Effectively a low budget horror film, it has a repetitive narrative once Cathy is turned into a Penanggalan where her head is sent off to terrorise the populous repeatedly. With only a few sets, only a few main characters and background faces, and a very tight plot  it has the presentation of an old American b-movie from the fifties or from someone like William Beaudine in style.

One of the potential issues with the delights of pulp cinema - psychotronic, weird, intercontinental - is that there's a huge balancing act that need to take place where just sticking to filming the plot will leave a film being a dull, plain viewing experience. The ones that have stood out for me, even if by accident, have had style or a personality to them. In Mystics In Bali's favour it does have an odd air around some of its scenes. Shot in what can vary between on-location places and sets, especially on a battered print, it looks less like real life than a purely fantastical environment onscreen with strong eighties lighting and bold colours. With an English dub that evokes having watched too many Godfrey Ho movies in my life, the world onscreen is caught between the individual edits of each frame than the film as recorded on the camera during the production.

The problem with Mystics In Bali is that for me beyond this there are so many of the cardinal flaws of genre films regardless of their country of origin inherent in it. Where the film drags and, without relishing incredibly silly dialogue, characters don't know when to be quiet. Films like this are cursed with actors merely standing around and explaining the most rudimentary and disinteresting dialogue possible, a lack of pleasure in it that is matched by the unwillingness the opposite way to make the "action" scenes have a spice and fun to them. It also unfortunately has a nasty taste to it in how conservative it is. For a film infamous for its special effects - Cathy turning into the Penanggalan or into a pig by way of a rubber pig person suit, or puking up mice in the bathroom - the film is pretty restrained than lurid and devotes more of its time to the good guys against the evil women with the least interesting consequences as a result. This terminology is apt as it has a real discrepancy between the good religious men and the evil women in the witch and eventually Cathy, without kitsch or a strange vicarious joy in the villains' behaviour to soften this. Putting up with bland male leads is an issue in any genre work, but it can be argued some of the worst cases of sexism is when you cannot go against the original message and cheer on the villains. At least if the hero was memorable or if the film was more entertaining there would be a balance, even if it wasn't the filmmaker's intentions, where you could secretly cheer on both sides of the square jawed hero and the fatale. Especially when the boyfriend in Mystics In Bali is guilty of both being tedious to see and in bringing Cathy to the witch in the first place, and is pardoned of any guilt by his uncle, you wish the both of them were turned into frogs by the witch. If it wasn't for the fact that the Penanggalan feds off pregnant women, I'd wish the villainess won. If any virtue is to be found in this film for me of great substance in terms of this, I see now why people rooted for the Christian Satanists in the likes of Hammer horror films and why with more morally sympathetic figures, like the Universal horror monsters, you get figures of global popular iconography.

Technical Details:
Like a lot of pulp genre cinema, unless one encounters a very artistic or radical change in cinematography and visuals, this type of cinema is based on there being a standard structure and presentation, emphasising instead the quirks. An innate issue covering this film on this site, with the blog title being "Cinema of the Abstract", is that I could easily slip into an accidental xenophobia by calling it "alien" because it's not like a western genre movie in presentation. Thankfully as I've seen plenty of low budget films from this era from other countries, Western and Eastern, that share similar production techniques, the issue is less about Mystics In Bali as a representation of an Indonesian film culture in general but what this particular production had access to in terms of technical resources and time.

The special effects are going to be the most memorable aspects of anyone's first viewing of the film, and barring the poor mice dunked in goo meant to represent them being vomited on a tiled bathroom flaw, you couldn't argue that the results are entertaining and a virtue in spite of the film's flaws. Basic blue screen is used especially in bringing the Penanggalan to life, a drastic change in the visual look of the shots when Cathy's head casually floats off the torso; in lieu to what the production could pull off, I actually admire them attempting this even though it might have been wiser to use more model heads and implied reference to show the creature. It would mean less of the shock of the head popping off or floating down an Indonesian motorway which would've deprived the fun from it.  When Cathy learns to turn into a snake and than a pig respectively during her training with the witch and subsequent transformation into an evil minion, I'm glad of the lo-fi prosthetics used as they are. Utterly strange to witness regardless - seeing an actress become graphically distorted to the point she becomes a mix of Pigsy from the Monkey King stories and a kaiju - it's why the term "psychotronic film"  was coined by Michael J. Weldon in describing the entertainingly bizarre in genre cinema. The texture of the rubber prosthetics, their inherent fakeness, is as important to how odd the moments are helping against the dreary material outside these scenes.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Again, there is the issue for a blog that calls itself "Cinema of the Abstract" that I could accidentally espouse a racist viewpoint by saying this film is "abstract" (i.e. weird) because of its cultural heritage and that it speaks a different language even if dubbed in English. I've always had an immense concern with "weird [insert name of country]" rhetoric for pop culture; the use of "Weird Japan" has also always, for example, been undeniably racist for me as a term even as an outsider who has never set foot in the country, painting an entire culture let alone pop culture as weird, even if the examples are legitimately bizarre, when it could be seen as strange to those born in the country too and different from regular Japanese life. Likewise, depicting another country or continent's religious and mythological beliefs as alien is problematic; as Christianity to another land, especially the uncensored version where Cherubs are actually four faced multiple winged entities, would be just as strange to an Indonesian, than a Penanggalan would be weird to a Westerner. Instead if there's anything strange about these beliefs, it's that they belong to the general weirdness of the human concept of spirituality and folklore across the entire species, a head popping off a human body and carrying its entrails with it strange in any language. Depicting these legends and stories on camera leads to them developing dreamlike airs to them where you have to figure out what to do to depict them and whether you have the technical resources to even show a floating head.

Unfortunately Mystics In Bali is conventional in plot and style to the point it deadens a great deal of its potential strangeness. Despite having a final straight out of the aforementioned Godfrey Ho films, an inexplicable fight with added laser effects, I still can't put it on the Abstract List. You have to compare it to something like The Devil's Sword, an Indonesian film that starts with a man surfing a boulder in the air and keeps piling on moments one after another, and you realise Mystics In Bali neuters a lot of its strangest moments (puking mike, detached heads threatening traffic) with constant dull dialogue from unlikable male heroes. Also, with black magic its central theme, there's a white elephant in the room called The Boxer's Omen (1983), a Hong Kong horror film hybrid from the Shaw Brothers that lives up to its reputation as one of the strangest, disgusting and artistically inspired films about Asian black magic you could see. A film like Mystics in Bali doesn't need to be like it, but you see how plain and ordinary it is in comparison to such a film, especially as The Boxer's Omen amongst its other fits of madness includes a scene involving a Penanggalan that's done significantly better than in the Indonesian film.

Abstract Spectrum: Psychotronic
Abstract Tropes: Mythological figures and Black Magic; floating heads; obvious blue screen; unexpected puking up of animals;

Personal Opinion:
Fun can be found in Mystics In Bali, but personally this turned out to be a disappointment in how ordinary it turned out to be. I've become softer and more amused by aspects of the film since starting to write this review, but especially as it's one of the most well known Indonesian films with horror tropes to it, it doesn't hold a candle to something like The Devil's Sword which I would recommend readers to check out first instead.

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