Directed by Oxide Pang Chun, 2004, 101 minutes, starring Race Wong, Rosanne Wong, Ekin Cheng, Anson Leung and Michelle Mee.
Released in 2004 to not much fanfare, Ab-Normal Beauty, directed by the Pang Brothers who last brought horror audiences reasonable fare such as The Eye and its various sequels, The Tesseract and Bangkok Haunted, has continued to remain a fairly inconspicuous entry on the Asian genre scene. Unlike other movies which have failed to make any real impression on fans, such as Sorum and the criminally-overlooked Acacia, though, Ab-Normal Beauty rather deserves its anonymous status. It is one of the blandest, most tedious works I have ever had to force myself to stay awake through. The movie boasts not merely almost no good imagery, no good performances and a soundtrack which is barely there, but also a dull mishmash of themes and sub-plots which are tied up together so tightly and unrealistically at the end the entire movie ends up dying on its arse.
Much has been said by critics about the supposedly stunning visuals, but I disagree completely. Quite apart from anything else, the prettiest shots are devoted to pristine interiors of snobby apartments. The look is almost too slick, so posed and prettily artificial that it really did give the impression that several top-flight advertising agencies had been working on the look of the piece. Every frame is stylish, with lots of interestingly tinted shots etc. In fact, at points it's hard to remember you're watching a horror film and not some incredibly expensive glossy perfume ad ;-) Indeed, so staged is it that for no apparent good reason, Race Wong seems to be continually in the mysterious presence of a wind machine, to ruffle her gorgeous long hair appealingly ;-)
Yet this is not a positive thing: all this unnatural and forced gloss doesn't hide the fact that the whole piece looks pretty bland and corporate - just like perfume ads. There aren't even any really interesting images, which makes it even more boring. Lazy directorial techniques like fast MTV-style jump-cuts and plot points magically explained in 'hallucinations' serve only to annoy and mildly worry the eyeballs. There is one decent sequence, involving, well, Race Wong wigging out, a lot of paint and a lot of paintings, but one fairly standard sequence can't save an entire movie. The phrase 'style over content' really was invented for films like this. I would also mention the soundtrack - if there was one worth mentioning. It is as bland as supermarket muzak and mostly ignorable - like the whole film itself.
Despite namechecking the work of such great and taboo artists in the field as Joel-Peter Witkin, whose notoriously beautiful and difficult photography lends death, disability, sickness and decay a true nobility and grace, unfortunately nobody involved with this film comes artistically and aesthetically anything like up to that standard: overall Ab-Normal Beauty is more IKEA than iconic. If you look at the caps on this page, you'll see that there is very little decent imagery - just lots of close-ups of the attractive leading lady. That sums the aesthetic up in a nutshell - pretty and empty of significance.
Jiney Tsui (Race Wong) is an exceptional art student whose major field is photography: indeed, she is so talented she has even already been accepted into the hall of fame of her current university. She has a pretty unpleasant and rude personality, which is possibly due in no small part to her mother being a very posh, very smart ice queen (Michelle Mee), who goes off overseas continually on business, leaving Jiney to her own devices without so much as a by your leave; clearly Jiney is very hurt by her mother's neglect.
However, an event takes place that changes the whole nature of Jiney's work: she witnesses a horrible car accident take place, involving a boy from her class, Anson (Anson Leung), who runs down a young woman in the street and kills her outright. Jiney is initially shocked and horrified - but along with that horror comes a strange, perverse attraction to the death scene, which drives her to take photographs of the woman dying in front of her.
She confides in her lover Jasmine (Rosanne Wong) about it, who is offended by Jiney's actions and sick attitude - of course, death is still the strongest taboo of all, and most people would be pretty creeped out by someone enjoying pictures of dying people. She tells Jiney to throw it away, but Jiney claims that it's the only photograph she's ever taken that she's truly pleased with - because it carries a certain emotional reality and power that she felt even at the scene of the accident.
But strange things are starting to happen to Jiney: her mind is playing tricks on her. For a start, she hallucinates the nude model in her life-painting class bleeding a perfect line down her body from head to toe. The car accident has evidently allowed Jiney to access a deeply buried and shadowy part of her own psyche that is disturbing, taboo and yet still darkly fascinating and beautiful. And it's a desire to capture that messy, scary reality on film, to experience that raw emotion again and again, that becomes an unstoppable obsession for her. She begins acting like a complete nutcase, taking multiple pictures of chickens having their heads cut off, and even slicing a few off herself.
Now, this is not socially acceptable behaviour by anyone's standards, and coupled with her already foul nature, Jiney is becoming not a nice person to know at all. Her girlfriend is starting to get seriously freaked out by this turn for the worse. Jiney's hallucinations are continuing apace, too - when she hangs up the chicken pictures, she sees blood pouring out of them as if their subject matter was actually there and bleeding in front of her again.
Unlike most people, this does not deter Jiney from her new artistic path. She actively goes out hunting taboo subject matter: dead birds, dead dogs, fresh fish being filleted, anything and everything gross and gory. The more she investigates this interest, however, is the closer she gets to uncovering a long-repressed memory of childhood abuse, which pushes her even further along the road to madness.
She even starts dating Anson, the student who was involved in the car accident. When Jas calls up during the date, she accurately pinpoints that she's not with him because she likes him: he is her closest link to that original death event. However, why is he filming her and taking secret photos of her? But he is but a mere amateur in the nutso stakes, compared to Jiney, who is losing control of the little sanity she has left and is becoming plagued not only with thoughts of suicide, but also with thoughts of murder.
But Jas comes to her rescue, helping her to regain control by encouraging her to burn her death photos and talk out her issues with her mother. Crisis over, you think? Not a bit of it... ;-)
Ab-Normal Beauty is based on an interesting psychological premise, involving taboo, artifice and superficiality, and ultimately finding beauty - and maybe even a degree of happiness - in all things, even suffering and death, because to be truly living in the real world, you need to be experiencing all emotions on all levels, as messy and painful and nasty as some of them may be. It's a fairly basic parallel to draw with the central character herself: everything in Jiney's life up until the point of no return is dedicated to the power of beauty, not only through the medium of art, but through beautifying herself with clothes, face creams, treatments, living environments etc. As a consequence, she shows a great deal of superficiality and aloofness, which is maybe why she never felt happy with the meaningless, surface prettiness of her photographs, up until she had real emotional trauma pushed into her face.
However, that is really the crux of the problem of why I personally found Ab-Normal Beauty so curiously uninvolving: unlike the central character of Mun in The Eye, whose courage in the face of great adversity provokes pity and sympathy in most viewers, it's really very hard to care less about Jiney, who comes across as a nasty, petty, rude, spoilt brat whose life, up until this point, has been mostly pretty cushy. Race Wong's performance is a bit too pedestrian to give any roundness to the role; even if the acting had been up to par, she is drawn as such a thoroughly unappealing person that you'd be hard pressed not to end up disliking her intensely and actually feeling secretly rather glad she's going through hell. Maybe that was Pang's intention - to make his audience experience for themselves what a guilty pleasure it can be to take enjoyment from someone else's suffering ;-) The supporting actors were at least believable and likeable enough to carry the movie - Rosanne Wong (yes, Race Wong's older sister) as Jas was probably the best of a bad bunch.
If you want to draw comparison with other movies, you could say that it desperately wants to be a serious essay on the push-pull revulsion-attraction of darkness, torture and voyeurism like Peeping Tom or Tesis, or a treatise on the transience of beauty and life like the classic of French horror cinema, Les Yeux Sans Visage; but it falls very short of the mark set by any of those movies and leaves the viewer feeling very confused and very, very bored. There are too many themes fighting for attention all at once, and all of them are losing the battle. In the end, for no absolutely good reason at all, it becomes more like a modern-day take on Evil Dead Trap, right down to the baddie in the big black overcoat ;-)
As a drama Ab-Normal Beauty is watchable, but applying the term horror to it is a complete misnomer. It wastes several decent horror premises by throwing everything into the pot at once, and makes too much of its desire to be an objet d'art, to the point where the visuals seem to carry far more importance to the director than the storyline - indeed, it didn't scare me, disturb me or move me emotionally in any way whatsoever. In fact, it even thoroughly failed to engage my interest for more than twenty minutes at a time. As for the ending, don't even get me started on how poor and weak the last half-hour is. In the final measure, Ab-Normal Beauty winds up mediocre, incoherent and disappointing. Bear in mind the Pang Brothers' next work after this one was the almost incomparably terrible The Eye 10, and let that be a warning to you.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value: 4/10
Sex: 1/10, only for the life-model's boobies
Chills: 1/10, and that's a default point for showing some Joel-Peter Witkin photos
Litres of tomato ketchup: several gallons of red poster paint and virtually no proper gore
Films in a Similar Style: The Eye, Evil Dead Trap, the Habitat catalogue
*** Confused and shallow ***
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This film will be released by Tartan Video in the UK in March 2006.
Ab-normal Beauty Wallpaper
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Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2006
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
Oxide Pang Chun
http://www.lovehkfilm.com/reviews_2/abnormal_beauty.htm - LoveHKFilm liked the movie better than we did, and did their usual great job with an indepth and incisive review
http://www.star-ecentral.com/news/story.asp?file=/2005/3/17/movies/10378117&sec=movies - interview about the movie with the Wong sisters
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1153806-ab_normal_beauty/trailers.php - trailers at Rotten Tomatoes
http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/2005/09/14/abnormal_beauty_2005_review.shtml - Auntie Beeb loved it
http://188.8.131.52/~slasherp/htm/reviews/abnormalbeauty.htm - as did Slasherpool
http://www.heroic-cinema.com/reviews/abnorm - Heroic Cinema also acknowledge the serious shortcomings of this movie
http://www.upcominghorrormovies.com/reviews/asian/abnormalbeauty.php - UHM echoed my sentiments entirely
http://www.cinespot.com/hkmreviews/e3abnormalbeauty.html - an excellent review by Sebastian Tse at Cinespot
http://brns.com/pages4/horror36.html - lots of images and a good review to boot at View From The Brooklyn Bridge
http://www.correnticalde.com/joelpeterwitkin/- further exploration of the work of the artist Joel-Peter Witkin (caution required for potentially disturbing graphic content)