Mystics in Bali: a warning to the western gaze

The following is a piece I wrote for a special issue on global folk horror in Altyazi, the leading Turkish-language film magazine, in a project funded by the British Academy. Other contributors of the issue include Rosalind Galt, Bliss Cua Lim, Gary Needham, among many otehrs. Turkish version here.


By the 1980s, Bali had established itself as a key anthropological site for the comparative study of culture. An island known for its picturesque paddy fields, mythic rain forests, resplendent beaches, and the noble grace of its people, Bali was, and still is, an ideal place for western scholars seeking a place of cultural difference par excellence. To make fieldwork bearable, they turned to elements that were aesthetically pleasing to the senses – traditional dance, shadow play, wood carvings – to find the essence of ‘culture’. By then the ‘politics of representation’ became central to anthropological theory, that is, the question of how to portray a foreign culture without falling into colonial tropes. Edward Said’s groundbreaking text, Orientalism, was published just a few years earlier in 1978 and transformed the humanities and social sciences forever.

Hypo-realist gore and gristle may not be an obvious choice for high-minded reflections on cultural encounters. Yet, the 1981 low budget cult film Mystics in Bali directed by Tjut Djalil can be regarded as a critique of Orientalism in western anthropology and the touristic gaze. Though not quite in the same intellectual vein as Said, the film conveys a similar message, by flinging at its audience a blood-splattered warning to faraway onlookers who see only the horror of difference in foreign ritual practices and beliefs.

Some decades after its release, Mystics in Bali gained cult status amongst horror aficionados, even earning the dubious honour of being the best-known Indonesian film in the west, according to the Youtube reviewer of cult films Brandon Tenold. It bears the hallmarks of low-budget shock-fests that appeal to fans who relish films ‘so bad they’re good’, such as wooden acting, flimsy plots, and unintentionally funny props and special effects. Canny video distributors Mondo Macrabo DVD and Trambo Entertainment in the US, keen to diversify the trash horror market with ever more bizarre curios, have been responsible for rebranding low budget Indonesian horror to western audiences.

The film has a premise that inevitably spells doom for the protagonist. Catherine is a young American woman writing a book about ‘black magic’ in Bali. Prior to her arrival, she had been studying ‘voodoo in Africa’ and wishes to explore something similar in Indonesia which, according to her local guide and lover, Hendra, is the most powerful form of magic known to humanity. He takes her to the rain forest to see a leak, a local witch, who will induct her to the dark arts.

Catherine is keen to learn from the leak and developing some skills herself but not before fulfilling a number of tasks that grow increasingly horrific in their willful erasure of boundaries between the human and non-human. She must first supply the leak with blood, collected in large milk bottles. Like a Lovecraftian creature, the leak drinks from the bottles through a thinly extended snout, not unlike like a straw, that reaches out from the forest foliage. Catherine must also join the leak in ritualistic performances that see them both transform, An American Werewolf in Paris-style, into large pigs and snakes.

Inevitably the leak makes more outlandish demands on Catherine in return for her tutelage. To continue learning from the leak, she must lend her head in acts of murder in the village. Catherine agrees without much reluctance (or ability to act alarmed) and finds her head, with viscera dangling beneath, disconnected and flying into the air on its reign of terror. In a particularly disturbing scene, Catherine’s floating head flies into the house of a sleeping pregnant woman, and eats the unborn baby from her vagina. Other scenes grotesque and disgusting follow. For a full minute, Catherine falls sick after awaking from her bewitched state, vomiting neon-coloured bile and live mice onto the floor. Hendra comes by, concerned but far from alarmed that she has spewed small mammals from her system.

Outraged by the leak’s exploits, the village elders work together to stop her and Catherine’s bewitched head. In the climactic showdown the leak and a benevolent mystic exchange asteroid blows in mid-air like video game kung-fu masters. But their fight to the death proves to be largely pointless as the leak quickly dissolves into dust when the sun rises. Catherine’s head and body reunite before dying herself, bringing the film to an abrupt end without a reflective moment for the surviving protagonists to ponder on the meaning of the leak and her apprentice’s death.

The film’s body horror is intended to convey the freakishness of Indonesia’s supernatural folk culture. Catherine’s floating head is an analogue of the penanggalan in neighbouring Malaysia and the krasue of Thailand. Going by the responses of English-language reviewers of the film, Mystics in Bali operates outside western sensibilities of disgust and horror. Without the familiar frame of reference of the western horror canon, these thrill-seekers are confounded by the fleshy jellyfish-like floating heads than filled with terror.

The story behind the casting of Catherine, that the actor was a tourist in Bali who was persuaded to take the leading role, points to the rough and ready approach to filming. And also, the belief in the aura and flexible morality of white femininity. It was not unknown for white or ‘Indo’ (white-Indonesian) biracial women to play sexy roles in Indonesian cinema. Ilona Agathe Bastian, a German who plays Catherine, was an unprofessional actor whose only apparent acting credit is in Mystics in Bali. Bastian plays Catherine with a sexual naivety, a woman coerced into compromising, objectifying situations. The film makes several unnecessary excuses to display Bastian in various stages of undress, stripped down to her underwear so that she could be tattooed by the leak against her will, and for her tattoo to be later inspected by her lover, Hendra. These scenes, unsurprisingly, add little to the barely coherent plot.

Despite its schlockiness, Mystics in Bali bears a relevant message to contemporary audiences of horror who know the consequences of walking into an unknown place, a darkened room, a haunted house, then peering in with a plaintive ‘Hello…?’ The world that Mystics in Bali conjures is one where Here Be Dragons, extract its riches and profit from it at your peril. Catherine pays her naïve attitude to conquering local folk knowledge with her life. Her interest in the darker aspects of Balinese mysticism goes too far when her body is appropriated and disembodied by the leak. Her lover, Hendra, can only look forlornly at her descent, or just disinterested.

Western viewers may in fact find the affective responses of the characters harder to countenance than the horror. In this Balinese world of murderous flying heads and trans-species transformations, its inhabitants barely bat an eyelid, as if strangeness is the order of the land. Hendra’s wooden disinterestedness in Catherine’s body horror and eventual death, however, turns the tables on racialised pain. In a real world so de-sensitised to images of Third World anguish, what happens when white death is not mourned and white pain receives no sympathy? Perhaps Hendra conforms to the cultural prestige of emotional restraint (halus) in Indonesian society, of appearing unperturbed in the face of devastation. Or perhaps disinterest is a decolonial disposition, one that is unmoved by the enormity of white imperialist suffering and death.

Western viewers of Mystics in Bali can easily miss the film’s cultural critique. Like Indonesia’s better known, critically-acclaimed horror films like Pengabdi Setan (Satan’s Slaves, 1980; 2017) and Jelangkung (The Uninvited, 2001), horror makes for a visceral canvas for the power struggle between modernity and tradition, secular skepticism and religious belief. Since the end of the New Order regime in 1998, Indonesian horror has developed in sophistication, employing the conventions of horror to re-engage with unresolved collective trauma and yawning rural-urban disparities.

Astute fans of global exploitation cinema know that Mystics in Bali may be not the finest specimen for understanding the Other and the more esoteric aspects of Indonesian folk mysticism. Belonging only tenuously to a kind of ‘folk horror’, the film invests the island as a place of dangerous knowledge, but dangerous only to parties that wish to tame it. This is true only as far as Bali’s relationship with the west is concerned, for the rural is conceptualised in the national imagination as a place of helpless backwardness, either desperate for state assistance or ignorant of its moribund state.

Thus, folk horror as a generic category is inadequate here, as it applies to a kind of parochialism, where the comforting meanings of folk culture and tradition are turned threateningly upside-down. In its global circulation as a cult exploitation film, familiar parochialism is irrelevant. For western viewers on a discovery for bizarre cultural curios, all references to the familiar are not on the cards. Mystics in Bali lies outside the valley of the uncanny (unheimlich) within which the familiar is turned strange or strangely unfamiliar. If anything, Mystics in Bali is weird. As Mark Fisher in his well-known essay on the weird argues, the weird is outside the category of conventional horror. Its outside-ness is the point. Part of the pleasure of the weird, he argues, is seeing the familiar become irrelevant or ‘obsolete’.

By Angry Malay Woman

I like plants.

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