Sunday, October 11, 2009

Mystics in Bali: One Potent Indonesian Cocktail

At first, Mystics in Bali tastes just like any other tacky tropical cocktail you'd get in a plastic coconut-shaped cup at any crappy little dive bar.

You know the kind of poison to which I refer. It's tinted an ungodly neon color from some cheap fruit-flavored drink mixer. A maraschino cherry and a pineapple chunk marinate in the fluid unceremoniously, impaled by the obligatory plastic spear. And the whole odd-tasting concoction's adorned with an obnoxious paper umbrella.

So imagine quaffing one of these, only to realize someone's spiked it with the most mind-jiggeringly disorienting exotic hallucinogen a human can ingest; and that there ain't no turnin' back from the wild and hairy trip. That's Mystics in Bali, in a (coco)nutshell.

American anthropologist Cathy (Ilona Agathe Bastian) travels to Indonesia, where she watches traditional dances and becomes romantically involved with Mahendra (Yos Santo), a Brillo-haired townie whose wardrobe leans towards jeans hiked up to his ribcage and 'I'm a Perfect 10' T-shirts. But Cathy's arrived in this exotic land to do more than just take in the regional color and canoodle with a ridiculously-dressed local: She's a student of black magic and is chomping at the bit to research the Leák, Indonesia's powerful indigenous strain of the dark arts.

One night, Mahendra arranges for a meeting with the local Leák queen, a crusty-faced and ever-cackling old hag who accepts offerings of blood in milk bottles and tattoos the American girl's inner thigh with a magic spell. Then for the next several evenings Cathy visits the witch alone, excelling in her Leák 101 studies (maniacal cackling, dancing, shape-shifting into pigs and snakes). Her tuition for this unusual curriculum? The Leák queen demands that the girl sprout fangs and turn into a vampiric demon who disconnects her head from her body. Cathy's disembodied head (replete with chunky bits of viscera and lungs hanging from it) then flies around the Balinese countryside knocking people through walls and sucking fetuses from understandably reluctant expectant moms (Yes, you read right, and no, I'm not making this up). Mahendra aptly deduces that things aren't going well, and enlists his Buddhist priest uncle for a fire-and-laserbeam-shooting-fingertip-filled final battle.

If you like your unintended guffaws with your low-budget horror flicks, Mystics in Bali does deliver on that shallow barometer. Cathy's transformations into pig-and-snakehood include some of the most laughable prosthetics committed to celluloid, and most of the decidedly low-tech special effects follow suit. The performances are reliably moribund, with Bastian (a German tourist literally recruited off-the-street to star in the film) and Santo playing their love scenes with the easy grace of a couple of twelve-year-olds dry-reading Shakespeare. And good luck trying to keep a straight face when anyone speaks. You're dwelling in the kind of territory where the hero reacts to his girlfriend vomiting up live mice and pea soup by hypothesizing that "Perhaps it was the food last night that has made you so sick now" in badly-dubbed English.

But the movie's also an utterly fascinating snapshot of the land and customs of Indonesia. Like low-budget American cinema, Mystics' producers were forced to shoot the movie in local areas that give way more welcome (and unintended) flavor than an antiseptic soundstage. Gorgeous, detailed religious statuary and architecture sit overgrown and foreboding in a few instances, and--absurd to jaded US sensibilities as it is--the movie's storyline faithfully dramatizes local folklore and mythology. Between that and the exotic masks and costumes that pepper the opening credits, Mystics offers a revealing glimpse into its people's figures of worship as well as their cultural phobias. There's something cooler than cool about the casual, everyday way Mahendra's uncle and his fellow Buddhist priests sit around, smoking and discussing extermination of the local demon witch like a bunch of pipefitters kibbitzing about the last Steelers game. And sometimes the primitive visuals--frequently shot in fog-enshrouded local woods--elicit shudders as well as snickers.

Mystics in Bali marked my first dive into the strange waters of Indonesian genre cinema (the mighty The Devil's Sword, previously covered in these here electronic pages, was the second). I'd initially seen this unique 1981 horror flick several years ago on a dupe-y, cropped DVD-R, and its blend of low-budget cheapness and exotic regional colors stuck in my head like a fuzzy but impossible-to-forget fever dream. As with The Devil's Sword, though, Mondo Macabro has put out Mystics in a sterling DVD issue. It's a little extras-stingy by Mondo's usual standards, but the presentation of the movie itself more than makes up for it: The letterboxed print looks better than most mainstream Hollywood blockbuster digital transfers.

And now, to quote my favorite crusty-faced Leák witch-queen, I will have to borrow your head for a short time. Why in the hell you'd need any more incentive to RUN to your local video store (or your Netflix queue) for a look at Mystics in Bali is beyond me. But if you're on the edge, this trailer--a modest sip from this heady cocktail--should clinch it.

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