Sunday, October 19, 2008

Mystics in Bali – review


Directed by: H Tjut Djalil

Release Date: 1981

Contains spoilers

This Indonesian flick is also known as Leák. The Leák of the title is a type of vampiric witch from Balinese folklore, also known as a Leyak, and is similar in trait to the Malaysian Penanggalan – a vampiric creature we have come across both in the Mike Mignola DVD comic that came with Hellboy: Blood and Iron and less successfully in Kapop.

The main difference between the two creatures is that whilst the Penanggalan is simply a vampiric creature which floats around as a head that has its stomach and intestines, the Leák is more complex. A witch like creature that practices black magic, they are able to shapeshift as well as fly around in a Penanggalan-like way. This film contains both a Leák – actually the Queen of the Leák (Sofia WD) – as well as the neighbouring Malaysia’s Penanggalan.

Hendra and CathyAmerican Cathy (Ilona Agathe Bastian) has come over to Bali to learn the secrets of the Leák. She has previously learnt voodoo and wishes to write a book on the most powerful (or dangerous) of black magic practices. She has met local Mahendra (Yos Santo) – known as Hendra – and has asked him to help her. Eventually he agrees to try to find the Leák for her. To note, as well as the blooming awful dubbing – I mean it is bad – Cathy is as wooden as a log. I understand that Bastain was just some tourist spotted by the producers, so perhaps she can’t be blamed too much.

Now one of the problems with this movie is that the scenes don’t hold together so well. We have a trip to a Balinese cemetery where the bones appear to be disinterred – no real explanation is given for trip or bones – and a woman following Hendra and Cathy. She just appears every so often and it is only in the end of the film we discover she is his ex, watching over him despite the fact that he dumped her for some American tourist but… onto the meat of the story.

Sofia WD as the Queen of the LeákHendra gets permission to take Cathy to see the Leák and they are caught in a thunderstorm of unnatural origin before being faced with the witch herself. First thing to note… the cackle, oh my word how the crone can cackle. Then the voice, she is dubbed in a faux-Yoda type voice that makes it very difficult to take the whole thing seriously. Finally the look, corrupted of face, long of nails, wild of hair. Honestly, if they had done the laughter softer (and thus more sinister), dubbed her better and had better general effects she might have been a genuinely creepy screen-presence. She agrees to teach Cathy and leaves her arm behind, to crawl Thing-like in a blur of bad SFX.

Leák tongueThe next night they return and the Leák is hiding in a bush. She asks for the tribute requested (that we didn’t hear asked for, bad scripting) and takes the jewels from Cathy’s hand by rather long, glowing tongue. She then uses said tongue to drink blood brought for her in jars – she’s walked a long way and so is thirsty. Finally she draws a spell onto Cathy’s thigh by tongue – a way to lend Cathy Leák power. The next night she should come on her own.

teaching telepathicallyCathy is taught by dancing and laughing with the old woman whilst the lessons are telepathically communicated to her. She tells Hendra that she will soon be a Leák master and then explains, in a flashback for our benefit, how she and the Leák changed form into pigs the night before.

Uncle is a mysticFor his part Hendra is worried and goes to see his Uncle, who just so happens to be a wise-man whose family have opposed to the Leák for some time. He wants to discover if there is a counter-spell that can rescue Cathy. One would have thought he’d have considered all this prior to introducing her to the Leák Queen – numpty. There is a spell and Uncle gives him a mystic dagger too.

Cathy's head detachesOf course it is far too late. The Leák is going to use Cathy’s head, as she puts it, and causes it to detach as she has made Cathy become a Penanggalan. This fits in with folklore, which suggests that a Penanggalan can be created through a powerful curse. Also fitting in with folklore is the fact that Cathy has fangs. The idea that her body should be preserved in vinegar whilst her head is out and about is lost, however.

eating the unborn babyHer attack on her first victim is straight out of Penanggalan folklore. She flies into a house where a pregnant woman is, knocking the poor old midwife through a wall in the process, and descends between the woman’s legs to devour her unborn baby. However, Cathy is not feeding herself, but rather collecting for the Leák who is using the blood to become young once more.

crap effects during mystical battleUncle gets involved and he decides that Cathy is irredeemable and thus puts thorns (or toothpicks!) in her neck to prevent reattachment – broken glass is the folklore weapon of choice but close enough. Traditionally this would be enough to kill the Penanggalan as it cannot reattach by sunrise but the Leák is involved and more shenanigans are afoot – culminating in a bad SFX magical battle.

dying in sunlightOne unusual twist on the traditional folklore was having the Leák unable to stand the sun and, indeed, it is through the sun that the Queen dies. Traditionally the Leák look like ordinary people in daylight. We also get some different shape-shifting through the film, into snakes (Cathy throws up mice the next day) and into fireballs.

PenanggalanBut is it good? How could you ask? Bad effects, bad plotting, bad dubbing and dialogue, wooden acting and Yoda sound-a-likes… It’s blooming terrible and yet absolutely necessary as it is the only place you’ll see a serious attempt (despite all I’ve just mentioned) to portray both a Leák and a Penanggalan. 3 out of 10, with that caveat.

The imdb page is here.

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