Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 release of Witch from Nepal. Chow Yun-Fat stars in a disappointingly low-key ghost story-cum-romantic comedy from the normally far more inventive Ching Siu-Tung (creator of A Chinese Ghost Story and Swordsman II).
Witch From Nepal was something of a step back for Ching Siu-Tung after the demented originality of his debut film Duel to the Death. Essentially a romantic ghost story, it has a few striking moments but in retrospect it looks more like a dry run for Ching’s far more elaborate and imaginative A Chinese Ghost Story than anything else.
Joe (Chow Yun-Fat) is on safari with his girlfriend Ida, during which a series of unfortunate accidents leaves him both in hospital and, rather more intriguingly, as the newly-anointed head of an ancient Nepalese tribe, who send a young witch (somewhat incongruously named Sheila) to protect him, both from everyday problems and, rather more seriously, from a character the DVD box identifies as the “Messenger of Evil”, a cat-like martial arts expert with terrifying(ish) supernatural powers.
Much of the first two-thirds of the film is more of a romantic comedy than anything else, with plenty of misunderstandings on Ida’s part about exactly who Sheila is and what her intentions are towards Joe (this is a tricky one to answer, as the language barrer means that Joe isn’t entirely sure either). More intriguingly, Joe discovers that he has telekinetic powers, though a couple of unfortunate early experiences with a jug of milk and Ida’s record collection quickly tell him that they should be used sparingly and wisely.
Things liven up immensely at about the hour mark, with Joe, Ida and some children at the latter’s ballet class being trapped in their car in a rainswept cemetery full of ravening zombies, but the film as a whole is oddly subdued for a Ching Siu-Tung vehicle – the special effects-packed duel to the death between Joe and the Messenger of Evil is expertly staged but there’s nothing in it that Hong Kong aficionados won’t have seen countless times before.
A major problem with the film is that for all Chow Yun-Fat’s charismatic performance, we never get much of a handle on precisely what’s going on – the language barrier between him and Sheila means that the basic situation of why a Nepalese witch is tagging around with him is never really explained, and while it’s obvious that the Messenger of Evil is an archetypal villain, precisely what he’s got against Joe is never firmly established (he doesn’t have any dialogue, and communicates mostly by grimaces and waving a large human bone in a threatening manner).
Given this lack of background plus the relatively conventional nature of the major set-pieces, Witch From Nepal, though often very enjoyable and indeed rather touching, is unlikely to feature on too many people’s lists of the best Hong Kong horror films. I’m glad I’ve finally caught up with it – I first heard about it in the late 1980s – but it wasn’t especially worth the wait: the genre has comprehensively moved on into far more elaborate fantasies since it was made.
As for the DVD, the print is generally in excellent condition, especially considering it’s a fifteen-year-old Hong Kong film – there are a few spots and scratches and very occasionally more serious damage, but absolutely nothing overly distracting. However, there are noticeable problems with the non-anamorphic transfer, which is very soft indeed. Worse, there’s a tendency for parts of the image to freeze on occasion, which I blame on poor encoding. Individual freeze-frames from this transfer would look deceptively good, but it falls far short when things start moving.
The soundtrack is considerably better – it’s the usual 5.1 remix from a mono original, but for once its roots aren’t that obvious: there are some scenes (notably one outside the hospital with cars going past from all angles) that make full use of the 5.1 soundfield. It’s not an especially demonstrative film from an aural point of view, but it’s unlikely that too many people will be disappointed with this track. The basic recording quality is adequate, although it understandably lacks the dynamic range of a contemporary soundtrack.
There are just eight chapter stops, which, though annoying, is absolutely typical for this label – though at least they’ve offered full motion video clips in the chapter selection menu as compensation. The subtitles, thankfully, are just about 16:9-friendly (they’re right at the very bottom of the frame on my set, almost to the point where descenders are slightly cropped), and for once the English is pretty good, with few of the usual grammatical howlers. The running time is inaccurately given as 86 minutes on the box – it should read 89.
The basic extras package is squarely in line with other releases on the Universe label – two biographies-cum-filmographies (of Chow Yun-Fat and Ching Siu-Tung), the theatrical trailer for Witch From Nepal, plus further trailers for Universe releases Flaming Brothers, A Hearty Response and Scared Stiff, the first two being early Chow Yun-Fat vehicles, the . As always, none of these trailers have English subtitles – and equally as always, they don’t really need any – indeed, the first two trailers don’t have any dialogue at all, and the dialogue in Scared Stiff doesn’t sound particularly essential.
All in all, while this is hardly a state-of-the-art DVD, since I paid the princely sum of five US dollars for it (brand new), I’m not especially disappointed. However, if you’ve yet to sample the delirious delights of Ching Siu-Tung’s work, Witch From Nepal is uncharacteristically low-key – you’d be better off with the likes of A Chinese Ghost Story or Swordsman II, both of which have a far more exciting and exotic blend of action and supernatural forces.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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