DIRECTED BY: H. Tjut Djalil
FEATURING: Ilona Agathe Bastian, Yos Santo, Sofia W.D., W.D. Mochtar
PLOT: American author Cathy King, traveling to Bali to research a book about witchcraft, gets tricked by a witch she’s interviewing, who turns her into a flying head to serve her own needs.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Even taking into account that this is all about an island culture’s religious folklore located halfway around the world, Mystics in Bali is still way weirder than it needs to be. The cartoonish special effects pile on the low-budget charm while we’re besieged by visions of animal transformations, witch battles, and humans barfing live mice. How can we refuse to consider it?
COMMENTS: The province island of Bali, Indonesia, is one of the world’s most popular tourist spots, mixing some of the world’s greatest surfing and diving on water with one of the most colorful and flavorful traditional cultures on land. Indonesia is the proverbial land of a thousand gods and a million ways to worship them, with ancient animism and spirit temples cheerfully coexisting with modern Hinduism. This is the background for our story, Mystics in Bali. Much of the structure of its story is based in traditional Balinese and Malaysian folklore. From some of the stranger aspects of this mythology, imagine how wacky our own religions sound to a non-practicer out of context. That helps us keep a level head on our shoulders (sorry) during this wild, dark ride—even though this could not be called a normal movie in any culture.
American author Cathy (Ilona Agathe Bastian) is in Bali to study black magic, intending to write a book. Her friend and local guide Mahendra (Yos Santo) takes her into the jungle and introduces her to an ancient witch, the Queen of Leák (a discipline of black magic). The first time the Queen (Sofia W.D.) appears, she’s a cackling hag with flowing white hair and waggling long fingernails, who warns them that she has many appearances. (Note to The Blair Witch Project: ten minutes in and here’s our witch. Was that so hard?) The Queen agrees to take Cathy on as a disciple, provided Cathy and Mahendra return bearing gifts of jewels and bottles of blood to offer the Queen in tribute. They do, and she transforms into a long glowing tentacle emerging from the bushes to claim it. She orders Cathy to remove her skirt so she can inscribe an incantation on her thigh to imbue magical powers. From here on out she demands to see her new apprentice alone, since her escort makes the Queen suspicious. Note that she is referred to as the “Queen” throughout the movie, but there’s nothing regal about her; she’s apparently the queen of the swamp she lives in and of the black arts she’s mastered.
Cathy dutifully returns alone to begin her witch training. This involves nightly dances and rituals during which the Queen and Cathy turn into various animals such as pigs and snakes, in delightfully cheesy special effects scenes. Shape-shifting turns out to be the main discipline of Leák magic. Cathy awakens the next morning from these night courses sick to her stomach, because apparently, when you’re in animal form, you eat like that animal. After her night of being a snake, she vomits mice. The loyal Mahendra becomes concerned about her ordeal and consults with his uncle, mystical monk Machesse (W.D. Mochtar), who teaches him mantras to counter the Queen’s magic should she get out of hand. Turns out Mahendra’s instinct was right on target; the Queen has not been performing these services for free. Her payment, in installments, is to have Cathy’s head detach from her body and fly around the village with her internal organs cleanly taken along for the ride. In this form she is the Queen’s errand head. These errands involve sucking babies out of pregnant women. You have to hand it to the girl, that’s some serious commitment to research!
As you might guess by now, there aren’t many ways to talk about this kind of movie except to tell the story straight up to a point of not spoiling it. After that, it’s just flailing your arms and saying “a bunch of crazy stuff happens!” We can say the Queen had ulterior motives in recruiting Cathy (well, duh): the need to prey on her naiveté to drain her youth and regenerate, and a score to settle with someone in the village. Meanwhile Cathy and Mahendra develop a romantic interest, the kind that always seems to get interrupted by messengers and delivery boys right when they’re closing in for a kiss—when her head is attached, that is. Eventually the local villagers catches wind of these black magic shenanigans and sternly object. They take their own measures to stop the flying-head rampage (you’ll never believe how) and Cathy and Mahendra have to figure their way out of this jam. “A bunch of crazy stuff happens!”
Mystics in Bali delivers everything you expect up front, moving at a brisk pace with no more exposition than needed. It works as a sort of children’s fairy tale, translated into the land of monkey temples and dancers with Ogoh-ogoh masks. You could peg it somewhere between Hausu and An American Werewolf In London, with maybe a dash of Big Trouble in Little China. It is a fun movie, in exactly the way that most of modern western cinema tragically seems to have forgotten. The locations are gorgeous; Bali is crammed with intricately carved temples at every turn. The biggest downer is the English dubbing, with voice acting that’s wretched even by the cheapest kung-fu action-thriller standards. The cast is passable but budget, spouting deadpan, underplayed lines. The Queen’s witch laugh gets especially grating after a while. When she’s not laughing, she’s dubbed in a voice that can only be described as Yoda with laryngitis. But overall, the experience is a surreal visit to a distinctively different culture. A great tourist destination, but if dealing with witches like these is par for the course, you sure as hell wouldn’t want to live there.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“After all the hype, the film lives up to reputation as a jaw-dropping riot of weird and disturbing imagery, but in other respects the picture is an amateurish mess, notably in its poor, almost schematic screenplay and atrocious non-acting by its leading player.”–Stuart Galbraith IV, DVD Talk (DVD)