The Witch from Nepal

The Witch from Nepal is an earlier film from Ching Siu-Tung, the director of A Chinese Ghost Story. Anyone expecting this to be a film as rich and satisfying as his later film is bound to be disappointed. Witch is one of those light-headed, mindlessly enjoyable films that Hong Kong is famous for; it's the sort of movie that almost begs you not to think about it too carefully... because if you do, you might be appalled. It's a shame to see Ching apparently trying to live up to the standard set by, say, Alberto de Martino, but we can at least take comfort in the fact that better things followed for Ching and practically everybody else involved.

The film begins with a written and spoken prologue. To paraphrase, it informs us that there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Huo Re Xiao, than are dreamt of in our philosophy. There are supernatural powers, it says, that can't be explained by science (probably because they don't actually exist... but I digress, as usual).

The narrator tells us of a primitive race of people who believe their ruler is a direct descendant of their god, and we're warned that evil things are stirring nearby. And so the movie opens in front of a vast and imposing stone structure, where a reverent crowd has gathered to watch the second swearing-in of President George W. Bush...

No, No! I'm sorry. No more political cheap shots, no matter how tempting they may be. We actually see a reverent crowd bowing before a temple with high stone steps, at the top of which their divine ruler is lying on a divan -- asleep. It's a little disconcerting to see all these people waiting expectantly for their leader to do or say something kingly, while he just lies oblivious (let me reiterate: no more political cheap shots).

Suddenly, an ominous pair of feet comes striding up to the temple. Since the owner of these sinister feet is obviously up to no good, the divine ruler's adoring crowd does what the adoring crowd of every divine ruler does when the going gets difficult: they run.

There is one woman in the crowd who takes a little initiative. She dashes up the stairs to the king, who's just beginning to raise himself from his bed, and whispers something to him -- "We're being attacked!", perhaps; or more likely, "Would it please your Majesty to know that at the present moment this temple, of which you are the Supreme and Anointed Guardian, is under the imminent threat of disturbance by a person or persons possibly bearing ill-will toward Your August Presence...?" or however you convey the obvious to a sleep-addled monarch.

His royal highness goes into the temple, where he confronts an enormous phallic idol. From in front of this idol he takes a sword -- hey! Count the surrogate penises with me, everybody! -- just as the black-clad Bad Guy reaches the foot of the stairs. The Bad Guy, who growls like a cat, whips out a big knobby bone (that's three! Three surrogate penises!) and charges up to meet the king. The king unsheaths his sword and joins the fight... only to get his divinely-descended ass handed to him.

While the king is embarrassing himself in combat with a meowling thug, the girl -- remember the girl? She kind-of got lost amid all the obvious male symbolism -- sneaks up to the idol. Draped around the, er, the shaft of the idol is a necklace with two big stones hanging from it... (Sigh. They're not even trying to be subtle about this). Anyway, the girl sneaks off with the idol's stones while the king and the brute are still going at it. Before the cat man can finish off the king, the girl catches up to him and spirits him away (we don't know how she does this, but if things continue true to form it's probably in the biggest SUV in east Asia). The cat man finds out that the holy testicles are gone and howls in frustration.

(I don't know what the cat man is called, but since the movie is called The Witch from Nepal, I'm willing to bet his name is "Du". Get it? Cat Man Du? Please don't hit me.)

After the credits, we're introduced to Joe and Ida, two tourists from Hong Kong doing touristy things in Nepal. After the usual montage of local attractions, we see Joe sitting alone on the balcony of his luxurious hotel, sketching. A sudden breeze carries one of his drawings off the balcony; when he peers over the railing to see what's become of it, he sees a robed Nepali woman holding it. Her eyes are a little familiar to us... Joe rushes downstairs, whether because of the drawing or the girl it's hard to say. When he gets there, a porter informs him in English that the girl has left the drawing for him. But although it's certainly his paper, the drawing on it isn't his at all. It shows Joe himself in front of a stone temple, fighting an enormous man in black.

Did I mention that Joe is played by a young Chow Yun-Fat? I believe what we have here could be referred to as an omen.

A little while later, Joe and Ida continue the tourist act by going out on elephants to look for rhinoceros. Joe is bewildered when his rhino sketch suddenly turns into the same drawing he'd seen earlier, of himself fighting the goon from the prologue. At that very moment, Joe's elephant panics and runs off at full speed. Joe is at first able to hang on to the howdah, but he soon bashes his head on an overhanging tree branch and is thrown to the ground. When he comes to, he finds his leg is bloody and mangled. Let's not forget that there are rhinos tramping around in the thick reeds -- Joe decides it would be prudent to get up and start moving, hurt leg or no hurt leg.

Unfortunately, Joe then steps out of a clump of reeds and off a ledge. He tumbles into a river, and is swept along by the current until he bashes his head on a log and is rendered unconscious. At this point, I was thinking that with Joe's rotten luck, all he needed was a waterfall; and sure enough, the next time we see poor Joe, he's lying in a pathetic heap at the bottom of a rocky gorge. Nearby, we see a shadowy figure holding a bloody royal sword...

Ida and the tour guides have mounted a full-scale search for Joe in the brushlands. This search consists of a line of elephants galloping through the reeds, while Ida calls Joe's name. That reminds me of the old elephant joke:

Q: What's the grey stuff between an elephant's toes?
A: Chow Yun-Fat!
But amazingly, the elephants don't squish Joe, even though Joe turns up back in the place where he disappeared, rather than at the bottom of some waterfall somewhere. Joe is flown back to a hospital in Hong Kong with no memory of what happened to him.

What Joe does remember is the face of the mysterious girl he saw in Kathmandu. Well -- at least he remembers her eyes, which were the only parts of her face he really saw.

Ida comes to tend to him, but since Joe is action hero Chow Yun-Fat, he's restless and annoyed by his helplessness. In spite of his busted leg, he tries to force himself into recovery. He does things like standing on his bad leg, or trying to use it to lift his hospital tray. Strong, determined and none-too-bright: that's our Joe.

Still, while he's out on the hospital balcony trying to stand on his bad foot, he catches a glimpse of a passing airplane -- and suddenly, he can stand! Well -- for an instant, at least. Then, as the plane rushes by, he becomes an invalid once more and crashes back into his wheelchair. The mysterious girl's face stares up at him from his dropped sketchbook...

It probably won't surprise anyone to know that the passing plane was a Royal Nepali flight, and that the girl from the prologue was hiding in the baggage compartment. Insert your own treatment-of-women-in-South-Asia joke here. As you might expect after a long flight under a pile of luggage, the girl is worn out from the trip. She staggers to the door of the baggage container and falls to the tarmac.

It will probably surprise everyone even less to learn that the girl is then taken off to the same hospital where Joe is recovering. He catches sight of her being wheeled by in a gurney; and again later, as a half-dozen orderlies attempt to restrain her.

That night, the girl breaks into Joe's room (literally -- she smashes through locked doors with ease). First she bows down in front of the sleeping man, and then she starts trying to remove the bandage from his broken leg. Her attempts awaken Joe, and when he sees her, she panics and flees with some completely unnecessary and destructive acrobatics.

Joe feels compelled to follow her. Don't ask me why... I mean, sure, she's cute and all, but a.) Joe already has a very nice girlfriend; b.) the other girl is leaving a nasty trail of destrution in her wake; c.) she tends to make medical judgments she doesn't really seem qualified to make; and d.) she's not much for conversation. Still, he gets in his wheelchair and goes off to look for her. He finds her curled up in (what's left of) her room, and he offers her a hand in friendship.

The girl then spins him around and pushes him and his wheelchair off the third-floor balcony (what is it about Joe and balconies?). As Joe plunges to he ground, the girl jumps off the balcony after him. In complete disregard of the laws of physics, she catches up to him. Physics, evidently in a lenient mood today, relaxes the law of gravity still further and gives the pair an improbably long time to spin together before they hit the ground. Joe's bandages fly off his leg, and he lands on his feet -- thus proving that he is the Pumaman!

No, no; wait. That's a cheesy Alberto de Martino superhero flick. What I meant to suggest was that the divine ruler who got his butt kicked in the prologue seems to have passed his spirit on to Joe, making him some kind of demigod. Being that Joe's played by Chow Yun-Fat, this may something of a step down for him...

The sounds of a crashing wheelchair brings the orderlies out to see what's going on. The girl jumps three stories to the balcony and hides. Joe tries to climb up after her -- what the hell; after all, his leg has just gone from imminent amputation to perfectly-healed... but he's restrained by the nurses.

Ida comes to pick Joe up soon after, since his leg is miraculously whole again. Later, as Joe heads off to a business meeting, he just happens to pass the hospital. Inside, Hong Kong immigrations has come to arrest the Nepali girl. This would obviously be too much of an inconveniencefor her plans, so the girl does her usual acrobatics. Joe sees her swinging from a palm tree, with officials chasing her; so he swings his car around, allowing her to vault in. Unfortunately, the girl's necklace -- the one with the godly stones on it -- gets caught on a branch as she falls.

Joe asks her her name, and she replies -- remember, this is her first line, and we're almost a third of the way through the movie -- "Shiela". Good traditional Nepali name, that (then again, Emily Chu looks about as Nepali as I do). He tries to get more information out of her, and she simply says again: "Sheila". Next, Joe asks her what she has to do with all the strange things that are happening... We're expecting more "Me Tarzan" stuff, but much to his surprise and ours, she says, "You're my new master now. It says so in the Scriptures!" Which is not something she's likely to have picked up in a Cantonese phrasebook.

To show her mystical abilities, Sheila calls forth a smoky spirit from Joe's cigarette. Blue lightning flies out of the electrical outlets in Joe's apartment and joins with the smoky ghost. Then the figure takes Joe by the hand and flows into his body. This proves beyond any reasonable doubt that Joe is the Pumaman!

Or something like that.

The next morning, Sheila nearly sets Joe's apartment on fire when she stuffs his electric stove with kindling and rubs two sticks together. Oh, those wacky Nepalis. After this mild misunderstanding, Joe attempts to teach her about conveniences of the modern world, such as... forks. You know how it is with these East Asian Ruritanians. When they take the Magic Metal Bird to the Land of Hollow Glass Mountains, where colorful dragons carry people in their stomachs along hard, black rivers, the poor slobs have a tendency to be overwhelmed. They may be masters of spiritual kung fu, but show them a battery-operated toothpick and they're on their knees chanting prayers for protection.

Just once I'd like to see the spiritual "primitive" look the "civilized" guy in the eye and say, "Yes, I see it's a fork, and I know what you can do with it. But where I come from, we consider such sharp tools to be barbaric, and use a much better method. Mr. Chow, allow me to introduce you to something we call chopsticks..."

But no. Instead, Sheila bends the fork with her mind.

Why do all these supernaturally-endowed mystics always have to sink to the level of a third-rate stage magician? Why, when they're supposed to have such power, do they always use it imitating the empty theatrics of Uri Geller? Why, for that matter, do people like Geller, who claim to have such mystical powers in real life, waste their supposed talents by bending flatware? Thereby making it "bentware", and of no use to anybody? Could there be a hidden message here?

But while we're on the subject of silly games, Sheila suddenly sees -- or perhaps merely senses -- Ida coming up to Chow's veranda. She grabs her plate and cup and, yes, her fork, and high-tails it out of sight. Not that she or Joe have anything to hide, right? The wry glances Joe keeps shooting toward the lurking Sheila as he speaks to Ida make us wonder what's really on his mind. As though we had to guess.

There is some attempt at comedy as Joe tries to practice his own new telekinetic skills without Ida catching on. It's amazing that she doesn't: every time he tries, he makes a sound like the lowest notes of a busted concertina. But perhaps that's just a sound effect...

Sheila, in the meantime, has gone back to the hospital to search for her lost stones. The attendants spot her and try to capture her. But Joe has been mysteriously drawn back to the hospital, too, and his psychic kung fu turns out to be more sensitive than Sheila's. Joe finds the palm tree, and as he concentrates, the stones on the branch begin to glow. Just then, the attendants catch up with them, so Sheila jumps up several stories as usual. Joe finds much to his surprise that he can do that, too; in a funny moment, he stands there, grinning a "look what I can do" kind of grin while his pursuers get closer and closer. Sheila manages to dislodge him, and they begin a desperate sprint across the hospital roof. Sheila jumps an amazingly long distance to the palm tree, but Joe hesitates (understandably). Sheila manages to find the stones -- but Joe is caught and dragged off to the police station, where a very unhappy Ida comes to bail him out.

Sheila is waiting for Joe at home, but Joe is furious with her. He orders her out of his house and out of his life. Her lower lip trembling, this acolyte of a mystical god-king -- this disciple of Eastern asceticism -- responds to Joe's rejection by setting herself on fire.

Don't you hate girlfriends who overreact like this?

Joe is horrified, and tries unsuccessfully to put her out. He runs toward her, and their bodies collide -- resulting in an explosion that blows out the roof and all the windows, and virtually destroys Joe's house. Oh -- and did I mention it's raining? It's raining. I really hate it when girlfriends overreact like that. Don't worry about the house, though: it fixes itself without explanation a few scenes later.

Anyway (as a gesture of atonement, perhaps), Sheila gives Joe the holy necklace. And that's not all she gives him, if you know what I mean. No more idols, swords or other surrogates: Sheila's about to meet the real thing. From now on, and for the best of reasons, we won't be seeing Sheila with the mark of the virgin on her forehead... it washes off in the rain, never to be seen again. This is what Joe's been after from the start, but before this he didn't have the stones...

But there's a further complication: the cat warrior has just arrived from Nepal. What took him so long, you ask? He came by boat. Anyway, he's in Hong Kong now, and he wants to be the Pumaman.

(By this point, it wasn't Joe's imminent confrontation with the killer cat-person that had me worried. If you think the epic struggle between Good and Evil is harrowing, just wait until Ida runs into Sheila. Which, because Joe's an infatuated twit, she soon does. Did I say we were through with surrogates? I made a mistake. There's one more: Joe himself, for acting like a total dick.)

Yeah. Well. You've probably guessed where this is all going. True to form, the movie arrives pretty spectacularly, but you may end up feeling the journey was a bit of a waste. You've probably figured out how the love triangle is going to resolve itself, too: the way it always works out in movies about callow young men with superpowers. Somebody's going to suffer, and it isn't Joe.

But you may not have anticipated... the zombies. Yes: zombies, and not the usual pasty extras or hopping vampires you might expect from a Hong Kong horror film. There's a brief interlude when the cat guy psychically forces Joe and Ida off the road and into an abandoned Christian cemetery. And then, for a few glorious minutes, it's Fulci time, as rotting corpses rise from the muddy ground. These are zombies straight out of any Italian flick, with rotting limbs and hideous faces, moaning as they wave their arms and shamble after Joe's car. You really have to wonder why the cat guy wastes his time chasing kings with bone clubs when he can do really cool things like summon zombie armies. Since his opponents are so busy bending silverware, perhaps he feels he has to meet them on their terms.

If Joe had been played by an actor less charismatic than Chow Yun-Fat, The Witch from Nepal wouldn't have been nearly as entertaining. The movie's mystical crisis is trivial, and its romance even less substantial. And certainly its condescension towards the Nepali "primitives" is as offensive as the worst Hollywood depiction of the "Heathen Chinee". But any film that has Chow and zombies in it can't possibly go too far wrong, even if neither are used to their full potential.

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