Ab-Normal Beauty (Sei mong se jun)

Hong Kong (2004) Dir. Oxide Pang

Jiney (Race Wong) is a talented but cold art student who is never satisfied with her work until, she witnesses a car accident and finds herself inexplicably compelled to take a photograph of one of the dead victims. Much to the horror of her partner Jas (Rosanne Wong), Jiney begins to find an odd beauty on such macabre and unpleasant images, soon becoming obsessed by death and suffering. This morbid fascination begins to consume Jiney’s life, pushing her to the edge of a complete break down from which Jas saves her. But, just as Jiney recovers she receives a folder of gruesome photos and a video tape depicting a brutal and violent murder.

The Pang Brothers, Danny and Oxide are no strangers to the horror genre having made waves with their chilling opus The Eye, which also received the Hollywood remake. Here we have one of Oxide’s solo films, a more macabre and arty outing compared to his joint efforts. While the violence in the film’s final act is disturbing and unsettling, the build up fits more in the psycho-drama category with anaesthetic approach that might hold some appeal for the art house crowd.

Our protagonist is not the most cheerful girl and thus not an easily sympathetic character – although having to tolerate the attention of classmate Anson (Anson Leung), a keen video maker who refuses to give up on wooing her despite openly being in a lesbian relationship, does go a little way to explaining Jiney’s aloof demeanour. Later in the film we learn that a traumatic childhood incident in which she failed to receive the support from her mother, offers deeper insight and possible explanation for both her behaviour and her attitude towards men. This actually feels a little too convenient, possibly even a little predictable, but its early appearance in the story suggests it has a more potent significance than originally suspected.

Jiney’s sudden Thanatophilia has no real explanation, with the aforementioned childhood revelation providing only the most tenuous of connections to it, but the deeper it goes the further it penetrates Jiney’s mind, body and soul. It starts off with her taking some arty shots of dead animals – including an uncomfortable scene where she asks a street butcher to let her shoot him while he decapitates live chickens –before she begins to hallucinate trails of blood on people and objects where there is none. The mysterious video that arrives after Jiney has made her recovery depicts a young girl chained to a chair surrounded by video and photographic cameras. A masked stranger then proceeds to beat her to death. Jas thinks it is a snuff movie but Jiney is convinced it is real. They immediately suspect Anson as the perpetrator, in revenge for Jiney snubbing him which he denies. What happens next not even a mind as deluded as Jiney’s could have predicted.

Oxide spends the first two acts of this film making the audience’s head spin as much as Jiney’s does, cramming a number of surreal, psychedelic arty images into the spaces in between the brooding and oddly melancholic moments of Jiney’s pursuit of deceased models. It is not until the breakdown just ahead of the hour mark that the true meat of the story rises to the top of the stew pot. The true horror of the final act is in the senseless brutality of the video and the subsequent fall out, and the change in both pace and mood creates the sensation that one is watching a different film. Whether the ultimate payoff satisfies all viewers will depend on one’s tolerance and acceptance towards open endings. You won’t predict it that is for sure.

The key facet of the film however is how Pang questions the idea of beauty and how it can be found in the most unlikely of places, whether it is healthy – or “normal” – for the beholder. Jiney’s initial foray is arguably morbid but she clearly finds something both artistic and emotionally appealing in these unsightly images, much in the same way that things like tattoos, piercings and esoteric fashions can be appealing to some. It may be an extreme way to challenge these conventions but then again, the Pang Brothers have a reputation for not ding things by halves.

The jaunty pacing of the first two acts may be off putting to anyone expecting on a full on horror assault but the barrage of unique and inventive images during the darker moments, coupled with the impressive turn from lead actress Race Wong at least give the viewer something to cling on to should the slower moments prove to be too testing. Whatever the mood of the scene maybe, a foreboding and sinister atmosphere is always present, a rare feat to pull off in modern horror.

Ab-Normal Beauty is an apt title since it fits the appeal of the horror genre perfectly – people enjoying the onslaught of blood and guts for their entertainment. Some may find the pacing a little off and might bow out too early, but the final act is suitably upsetting enough to reward the patient Asian Horror fan. It doesn’t scale the giddy heights of The Eye but it serves its purpose well enough.