SEPTEMBER 18, 2012
Not many people attempt to combine a slow character study with a serial killer movie, but I can certainly appreciate anyone who tries. Oxide Pang split from Danny to make Ab-Normal Beauty (Cantonese: Sei mong se jun), which any plot description will "Wonderful Life" it up by describing the third act since the main part of the movie won't sound very interesting on paper. Of course, this means the best way to go into the movie is without knowing anything, rather than read a plot description and sit around for the first hour wondering if you were watching the right movie.
But I got a review to write, so just stop reading if you haven't seen it yet, armed only with the knowledge that it's about the things that happen to a disturbed girl. Also, that despite being an Asian horror flick (from one of the guys behind The Eye no less), it's actually pretty gory/violent at times and has not a single supernatural element, so if you're in the mood for something along the line of their other horror films, look elsewhere
Basically it starts off like a typical Asian horror movie - a girl is taking pictures and she snaps a shot of a fatal car accident. Ordinarily this would mean she'd be menaced by the victim's ghost, or her camera would become haunted or something, but in fact the accident is never really mentioned again (and apparently it's related to an event from Danny Pang's Leave Me Alone, which he was making on his own at the same time). Instead, this begins our heroine's fascination with death, and so she goes about taking photos of dead birds and demanding that a butcher kill extra chickens so she can film that as well, and at one point she even takes dozens of shots of a person who is jumping to their death.
In between these morbid scenes are a few isolated freakouts (she's also a painter, so she'll throw paint over someone or herself, screaming and yelling) and flashbacks, where we learn that she was molested by her cousin as a young girl, which explains her troubled state as well as her near hatred of men (her mom is usually off on business, too, which doesn't help). So it's basically a stylish and grim drama for this first hour, something that's more or less in line with Shame or some drug addict movie except her vice is death (and art, I guess). And not a bad one, either - Race Wong is quite good, taxed with a far more demanding role than 95% of Asian horror movies would ever require. Her real life sister Rosanne Wong is also good as her best (only) friend, who wears her kid gloves around her and does her best to keep her from going off the deep end. There's a wonderfully sad scene late in the film where she helps shower Race after one of her paint freakouts, and then helps her destroy some of her disturbing photos/art - I wish I had a friend who would help me through such a catharsis! When I quit HMAD, will someone come over and help me throw away all those terrible screeners for movies I'd never want to watch except to fill my daily quota?
And then, almost exactly at the one hour mark, the "plot" kicks in, as she receives a mysterious videotape containing what appears to be a snuff film. Some investigation follows, and then another comes, "starring" someone she knows. So it basically turns into a serial killer film, albeit one that's only got about a half hour to start/conclude, so it's no surprise that the identity of the killer, hidden for most of this time, isn't particularly interesting - it's a character we haven't really met, but it would kind of have to be since there weren't any other characters of note in the movie. Luckily, it doesn't really matter much who it is, as it actually ties in quite nicely to the film's actual story, of a girl who needs to shed her obsession with all things terrible.
It's a shame that the ending almost derails it, however. There's one final bit of information that is delivered with a still frame and a voice-over, almost like they forgot to mention it earlier. It's not even that important in the long run, but it certainly could have been revealed earlier, or at least delivered in a less clunky way. I mean, imagine if at the end of Citizen Kane someone said "Oh, by the way, it's his sled." - that's about as graceful as this bit of info is given to us in Ab-Normal Beauty. And don't give me shit for comparing the two, since this is pretty much the Citizen Kane of movies about death-obsessed girls who learn how to paint normal stuff again.
It's also got a terrific score, particularly during the opening photography montage (which is aided by some stylish visuals that play with taking the color out of the image and such) and the closing scene - it's quite melancholy but lush, reminding me a bit of the score from Sauna, which I now want to listen to but can't. Thanks a lot, movie. Speaking of being reminded of other films, I was quite amused that the killer (who has an AMAZING mask, by the way) had a dungeon that looked like it was ripped off from Saw, but these films were in production at the same time on opposite sides of the world, so it's just an awesome coincidence.
So overall, it's one of the better films from the Pangs, but that's not saying much, and it probably won't satisfy those looking for a full blown horror film. I think if the serial killer plot had been threaded into its first two acts (even as a background element) it probably would have worked better and been easier to recommend, but at least as it stands it's more interesting than I expected. Plus it's sad, and I'm a sucker for a sad horror film.
What say you?