Judge Joel Pearce wants to know what you're looking at. Why don't you take a picture, huh?
Drop dead beautiful.
The market is being flooded with poorly made Asian horror titles that all look the same and are trying to cash in on what was once a vibrant and exciting genre. I am pleased to report that Ab-Normal Beauty actually feels different and fresh. It's not for the faint-hearted, perhaps, but is a creepy and fascinating good time.
Facts of the Case
Jiney (Race Wong, Color of Sound) is a beautiful but troubled photography student. She produces brilliant work, but is unhappy with her own talent. She is haunted by past abuse, and not even her art works is an outlet for the pain. Then, she witnesses a fatal car accident outside of her house. At first, she is repulsed by what she sees, but then quickly finds herself fascinated and attracted to the display.
After this, Jiney starts to actively pursue death, adding a grisly new aesthetic to her photography. Her lover, Jas (disturbingly played by her real life sister Roseanne Wong) is upset by the new direction her art is taking. So is Anson (Anson Leung, Heroic Duo), the rejected boy who is obsessed with her. Soon, Jiney takes her obsession with death too far as she captures a woman throwing herself from a building. When she reaches the end of her rope, she realizes what she's become and resolves to return to the land of the living. Little does she know that someone else has noticed her recent obsession, a person whose desire to capture the moment of death on film could put Jiney on the chopping block.
Though I don't like to handle reviews this way, I want to start with a disclaimer statement. Although Ab-Normal Beauty examines the issue of how women are treated in society, as well as the fallout of abuse, its second half also features some very disturbing violence against women. But this is the paradox that director Oxide Pang Chun and his production partner and brother Danny Pang explore throughout the film. At the thematic core of the movie is a conversation that happens early on when Jiney comes to the realization that a photograph is analoguous to death: each freezes a moment forever. Although gruesome, it's a compelling observation, but one that is completely tossed out in the second half of the film, as Jiney struggles for her own life. Are the Pang brothers saying her photograph/death analogy was incorrect, or only that the power of death is one best left alone? This muddle of concepts is puzzling, but leaves us with a lot to chew over once the final frame has rolled.
Some things are not as puzzling, but equally powerful. Ab-Normal Beauty offers an interesting look at obsessive behavior, as we track Jiney from her initial fascination with death, to her flirtation with self-destruction, and beyond. What begins as a grim but acceptable direction for her artwork quickly grows into something else entirely. She needs to get closer and closer to real death in order to capture her images, and soon finds herself driven to do terrible things. After she comes to her senses and escapes her obsession, the looming, threatening figure represents what she could have become if she hadn't escaped. It's a narrative structure that has often been used in drug and alcohol films, but it works unexpectedly well for the art theme here.
An exploration of the art world was also a fantastic choice for the Pang brothers, who have a great eye for cinematography and visuals. I don't know if either of them has a background in fine art, but it wouldn't surprise me. Now, I'm not an artist, but all of the artwork here looked great to me. The fantastic cinematography and fine photography make it easy to believe that Jiney is a talented but troubled photography student.
The performances are also excellent. Jiney's character has the complexity needed to make her a compelling protagonist for this troubled story, and the other leads also help. Although they have the stupidity often connected with horror movie victims, their choices are never too contrived. It's always nice to see a horror film that doesn't insult the audience's intelligence, and this one is aimed squarely at adults. While it's not the greatest film ever made, it certainly warrants attention.
Tartan Films has done a fine job with the disc. Although I've found their transfers to be inconsistent lately, Ab-Normal Beauty looks and sounds great. The video transfer is almost flawless, only running into trouble during the darkroom scenes, which feature the characters in red lighting. In these sequences, there are noticeable halos, but it's a minor complaint in a great looking film. The sound is excellent as well, with plenty of muscle, strong surround presence, and clear dialogue in a DTS track. There are a few problems in the subtitle translation, but it is easy to understand for the most part.
There are also a few extras. First up is a collection of deleted scenes, most of which are extended darkroom sequences and conversations. None of them add anything to the film. There is also a production featurette, but it's pure studio fluff. The photo gallery is also a big disappointment after the impressive artwork in the film.
I was impressed by the willingness of the Pang brothers to use such a familiar formula to tell a very fresh story. It's a risky project, and one that will turn many people off with its gruesome violence and narrative ambiguity. Still, adventurous horror fans will be drawn in by the bold visuals and rich characters, only to rediscover that the supernatural is not necessity to frightening storytelling. It's not as assured and compelling as The Eye, but it's well worth an hour-and-a-half of your time.
Not guilty, but I would like to say for the record that I am not in any way obsessed with photography and death, just in case the creeps are reading.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• Deleted Scenes
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