A domestic drama that flirts with occult rites, "Mask of Desire" cracks the door on local psychology and superstition just wide enough to intrigue, then bewilder, most offshore viewers. Status as the first feature produced to date in Nepal guarantees some fest and specialty-programmer interest, but this turgid exercise ultimately frustrates more than it illuminates a promising theme.

A domestic drama that flirts with occult rites, “Mask of Desire” cracks the door on local psychology and superstition just wide enough to intrigue, then bewilder, most offshore viewers. Status as the first feature produced to date in Nepal guarantees some fest and specialty-programmer interest, but this turgid exercise ultimately frustrates more than it illuminates a promising theme.

“Inspired by a true incident,” story has genial, brawny night watchman Dipak (Ratan Subedi) happily ensconced in a Kathmandu flat with his two young daughters and wife, Saraswati (Gauri Malla). Latter, however, is making herself sick with anxiety over her inability to produce a male child; when a baby boy does arrive, but weakens and dies, Saraswati grows convinced that she’s offended the gods.

Despite Dipak’s reluctance, she seeks exorcism-style help from widowed Gita (Mithila Sharma), a beauteous “Jhangrini,” or spiritual healer. She, in turn, finds the middle-class duo’s company a relief from her otherwise joyless, ascetic life. But this friendship soon turns the already high-maintenance wife into a jealous spouse, as Dipak admits his attraction to “that devil woman.” Violent cat-fight climax provides an abrupt, unsatisfying end to helmer Tsering Rhitar Sherpa’s hitherto plodding effort, which too seldom leaves the talky confines of couple’s apartment.

Though presumably clear enough to local auds, the conflict between medical science and age-old supernatural beliefs is dramatized in terms at once heavy-handed and murky for viewers with little knowledge of Nepalese traditions. Perfs are generally OK, though Sharma turns on the waterworks too often; she is credibly on-fire during her spiritual-possession scenes, strikingly composed elsewhere, while Subedi exudes easygoing masculinity. Tech aspects are adequate but lack zest, with teasingly few views offered of Kathmandu’s scenic and historical beauties.

Mask of Desire

(NEPAL-JAPAN)

Production

A Milo Prods. and NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corp.) production. Produced by Tsering Rhitar Sherpa, Lobsang Tsultrim, Ang Kusang Sherpa, Sampa Lama. Executive producers, Makoto Ueda, Keiko Iino. Directed by Tsering Rhitar Sherpa. Screenplay, Kesang Tseten, based on a story by Tseten, Sherpa.

Crew

Camera (color), Ranjan Palit; editor, Reena Mohan; music, Nhyoo Bajacharya; production designers, Santosh Paudet, Rajeesh Shrestha; sound, Devendira Katteo, Rajan Bhuarte. Reviewed at Kabuki 8, San Francisco, April 11, 2000. (In S.F. Film Festival.) Running time: 105 MIN.

With

Saraswati ..... Gauri Malla Gita ..... Mithila Sharma Dipak ..... Ratan Subedi Attendant ..... Nirmal Pyakurel Mother ..... Rama Thapalia

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