Sunday, June 30, 2024

Southeast Asian Cinema Month Quick Picks and Pans

The Traveling Circus Poster

The Traveling Circus (1988) In this underseen drama from director Linh Viet, a rag-tag traveling circus visits an impoverished rural Vietnamese village, despite the protests of the village elder. Skeptical of the unwanted outsiders, the starving residents have little need for frivolity or entertainment when they’re trying to survive. A young boy becomes smitten by one of the performers, a woman who performs a magic trick that makes rice appear. He longs to know the secret so he can feed his malnourished younger sister and the rest of the village. Filmed in black and white (which lends to the sense of immediacy), The Traveling Circus is a simply told but devastating tale of desperation and misplaced belief. Largely unknown outside its native country, this film deserves to reach a wider audience 

Rating: ****½. Available on DVD

ROH Poster

ROH (aka: Soul) (2019) Director/co-writer Emir Ezwan’s atmospheric debut feature, set in a Malaysian jungle, creeps under your skin from the first reel and never unleashes its grasp. A single mother (Farah Ahmad) and her two children Along and Angah (Mhia Farhana and Harith Haziq) eke out a meager existence in their isolated hut. Their lives are changed forever when they encounter a young girl wandering the jungle alone. Her presence and subsequent death become a harbinger of terrible things to come for the family. A mysterious old woman (June Lojong) who lives nearby offers her assistance against the evil presence that looms about. Signs point to an enigmatic lone hunter (Pemburu), searching for the missing girl. ROH doesn’t rely on cheap scares or flashy special effects, but relies on light, shadow, and the ambient sounds of the jungle (accompanied by a minimalist score) to create a relentless and overwhelming sense of dread. Bad omens abound, and nothing is quite what it seems. 

Rating: ****. Available on DVD, Tubi and Shudder 

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (2017) Set in a remote rural Indonesian town, director/co-writer Mouly Surya’s spaghetti western-inspired story (accompanied by a Ennio-Morricone-influenced score) of revenge is a portrait of quiet courage under extreme adversity. A man appears at the widow Marlina’s (Marsha Timothy) modest farmhouse, calmly proclaiming that he and his men (who are about to arrive) will take her livestock and forcibly have sex with her. This doesn’t sit well with our plucky protagonist, who poisons his men and decapitates their leader. She sets off (carrying the severed head) with an abused pregnant friend to report the incident to the police, who appear less than sympathetic. Mouly Surya’s film provides a matter-of-fact commentary on misogynistic society, where the consequences for the victims are worse than the perpetrators. At its heart is Marsha Timothy’s intense performance as a woman who refuses to passively adhere to social conventions at her expense. 

Rating: ****. Available on DVD 


Ode to Nothing Poster

Ode to Nothing (2018) Middle-aged Sonya (Pokwang) leads a dreary day-to-day existence, tending to her failing small-town family business, a funeral home. With too-few customers to keep afloat and a cruel landlord constantly breathing down her neck, she and her estranged father face eviction. Her life unexpectedly changes when an anonymous old lady’s corpse is dropped off by two men. While waiting for someone to claim the body, the corpse becomes Sonya’s surrogate mother and confidant – a temporary salve for her pervasive loneliness. Ode to Nothing is a heartbreaking meditation on quiet despair and invisibility in an uncaring society.    

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray

Alone Poster

Alone (2007) Co-directors Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom return with the follow-up to their debut film, Shutter (2004), a twisted tale of retribution from beyond the grave. When Pim (Marsha Wattanapanich) learns that her mother has suffered a devastating stroke, she reluctantly returns to Thailand with her boyfriend to settle affairs. As she stays in her childhood home, the past comes back to haunt her in the ghostly form of her once-conjoined twin sister Ploy (who died when they were separated). This unsettling story of survivor’s guilt and unrequited love will keep you in suspense throughout. 

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD (region 3)


Silip - Daughters of Eve Poster

Silip: Daughters of Eve (1985) Set in a small, isolated seaside village in the Philippines, director Edward Perez paints a picture of desire, longing and cruelty. When free-spirited Selda (Sarsi Emmanuelle) returns home, it sends the insular community into a tailspin, especially her sexually repressed sister Tonya (Maria Isabel Lopez). A fractured, contentious love triangle brews between Selda, Tonya and Simon (Mark Joseph) a brash hunter, leading to a tragic climax. This example of Filipino “Bold” cinema (roughly analogous to Japanese “Pinky” film) can be difficult to watch at times, with its brutality and frankness, but its exploration of the dark side of human nature will stick with you. 

Warning: The opening scene, featuring the (real) slaughter of a cow is quite disturbing, as well as later scenes of (simulated) sexual assault. 

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Motel Mist Poster

Motel Mist (2016) Writer/director Prabda Yoon focuses on the bizarre activities surrounding a Bangkok love motel, where anonymous people go to fulfill their wildest desires or simply drop out of society. The patrons include a middle-aged man with an abusive streak and a former child actor who believes he’s being controlled by aliens. Meanwhile, a love-starved motel clerk lives vicariously by spying on the activities of the guests. This quirky, well-acted character study is full of surprises throughout, leading to a fittingly unusual ending.   

Rating: 3 ½ stars. Available on DVD, Midnight Pulp and Tubi

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Mystics in Bali


Mystics in Bali Poster

(1981) Directed by H. Tjut Djalil; Written by Jimmy Atmaja; Based on the novel Leak Ngakak by Putra Mada; Starring: Ilona Agathe Bastian, Yos Santo, Sofia W.D., W.D. Mochtar, and Debbie Cinthya Dewi; Available on DVD 

Rating: ***½ 

“Cathy, voodoo or any other black magic is nothing compared to this Leak magic. According to what I’ve heard, the Leak is the most powerful of all magic.” – Mahendra (Yos Santo) 


“There are some things people weren’t meant to know” is a popular theme of many horror films, often involving a naïve westerner poking their nose where it doesn’t belong.  Of course, anyone who’s watched more than a few movies of this type knows exactly where it’s going. While its central theme and plot are familiar, director H. Tjut Djalil’s Mystics in Bali takes a decidedly Southeast Asian spin on familiar material, incorporating Indonesian folklore into the mix.* As a pure horror film, it represented a departure for Indonesian cinema, which previously adopted Bollywood’s “kitchen sink” approach (with a mélange of slapstick comedy, drama, and musical numbers). Intended as a breakout film for the export market, Mystics in Bali featured an approach that would appeal to the tastes of Western audiences. 

* Fun Fact #1: Due to the subject matter, which incorporated authentic Balinese beliefs and practices, filming was moved from Bali to nearby Java, to avoid upsetting the locals.

Leak Master

Cathy Kean (Ilona Agathe Bastian)* is an inquisitive young American woman visiting Bali, Indonesia, as research for her book on different forms of black magic. Through her friend Mahendra (Yos Santo), she learns about a powerful form of Indonesian black magic known as Leak (Pronounced “Le-ack”).* Mahendra arranges a meeting with a Leak master (Sofia W.D.) who appears as a hideous crone, but subsequently agrees to take on Cathy as her disciple. Naturally, there is a steep price to acquire this forbidden knowledge, as Cathy unwittingly pays with her body and soul. Employing her mastery of the dark arts, the ever-cackling sorceress (who sounds something like the Cryptkeeper in Tales from the Crypt) borrows Cathy’s head (yep, you read that right) to do her bidding. Cathy’s head detaches (with entrails dangling underneath) and flies around, searching the countryside for the blood of potential victims.** She’s bound by the Leak master to take the lives of three people, so the witch can become all-powerful and immortal. Now it’s up to Mahendra and his uncle Machesse (W.D. Mochtar), a mystic, to set things right, setting the stage for an ultimate battle between good and evil. 

* Fun Fact #2: Ilona Agathe Bastian wasn’t an actress but a German tourist who happened to be at the right place at the right time. A wife of one of the producers convinced Bastian to extend her stay by several weeks so she could appear in the movie. To date, this remains her one and only film role. 

** Fun Fact #3: The Leak (or Kuyang) isn’t strictly confined to Indonesian folklore, but has several counterparts throughout Southeast Asia, including: Thailand (Krasue), Cambodia (Ahp), Vietnam (Ma lai), and others.

Mahendra and Cathy

Cathy and Mahendra are clearly more than just friends, but within the confines of the movie they enjoy a chaste relationship. Considering the gory, anything-goes nature of the film, the conspicuous restraint the filmmakers demonstrated with regard to the two leads suggests it was due more to censorship concerns than anything else. (Mild Spoiler Alert) We only learn toward the end of the film that the young woman stalking Mahendra and Cathy is Mahendra’s jealous ex-girlfriend. When we learn of her connection with Mahendra, it almost seems out of left field. I can only speculate that the original, longer cut of the film fleshed out this character a bit more.

Cathy's Disembodied Head

Compared to American cinematic standards, the special effects are crude, but once we’re in the thick of things, it ceases to matter. The transformation sequences (when Cathy and the Leak master turn into pigs, and later into snakes) have a creepy, otherworldly quality that transcend any technical or budgetary limitations. But the animal transformations are only appetizers for the main course. Arguably, the movie’s raison d'être is revealed when Cathy’s head separates from her body, becoming its own entity. It’s not an especially convincing visual (the video-based effects don’t quite synch up with the film stock, and the flying head just looks like a mannequin head on a wire), but it still creates an uncanny experience, leaving our collective imaginations to fill in the blanks.

The Leak Master Wields Her Power

Initial plans to market Mystics in Bali as a “breakout” Indonesian film geared to Western audiences backfired, when it failed to find adequate international distribution. Outside of its native Indonesia, the film only made it to Japan as a theatrical release. Home video and word of mouth eventually gave the movie a new set of legs, especially with its DVD release in 2007. It’s been unfairly maligned as “cheesy” or goofy by some reviewers, but that overlooks the cultural significance of the film, which reflected the Balinese culture and superstitions. Those spoiled by the technical wizardry of Western cinema, with its emphasis on photorealistic effects and slick production values, might find Mystics in Bali too rough around the edges, but that’s missing the point. Instead, Mystics in Bali asks you to suspend your disbelief and consider there are forces much greater than ourselves in the world – forces that deserve reverence and above all, caution.   

Sources for this article: “Mystics in Bali & the Indonesian Exploitation Movie,” by Pete Tombs (essay from Mondo Macabro DVD); “Krasue,” Wikipedia entry: Krasue