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Ab-Normal Beauty (2004)
Writer and director: Oxide Pang

review by Paul Higson

The Pang brothers made an impression with their action film Nowhere To Hide and then again with the horror film The Eye, the latter partly funded with UK money. The two films credibly hollered that they were the new vision masters of eastern action and horror. With Ab-Normal Beauty (aka: Sei mong se jun) they want to convince us that they can also substitute Kim Ki-duk, but instead show themselves up for fools, having bitten off more than they can chew. Ab-Normal Beauty begins well, to look at, as we follow the beautiful, young photographer Jiney (Race Wong) chasing striking images with her lens. We don't witness this through her eyes nor in the processed shots. It comes in the excellent cinematography of Decha Srimantra, shifting from colour-clotted close-ups to gliding scenes of great clarity. In one stunning early shot, a car crash is introduced in a slow pan across crumpled bonnet, the shadows spilling across the polished surface like pooling blood. Before long none of this matters, nothing the technicians can do will make up for that which is absent in the film. Neither is it the one thing absent.

Jiney has a girlfriend, Jas (Rosanne Wong), equally dark-haired and beautiful, there are no butch dyke halves in eastern exploitation cinema. She had been turned off boys when young following a molestation led by a cousin, bolstered by a couple of other schoolboys. The cousin shortly after took a deadly tumble down some stairs. The death made up for mother (Michelle Yim) believing her, but there is a lot yet unresolved from the abuse. A fellow high school student Anson (Anson Leung) has a crush on her that won't let him go. Tied to the city where the happy snapper has explored her environment to the hilt and is stuck for something new to focus her camera on. The car crash (her first ugly photographic shot takes place on 1st Street) feeds into her agitation and guilt, and a fascination for the morbid is cultivated and flourishing. She takes shots of chickens as they are slaughtered and excitedly takes a front row seat to film a girl's rooftop suicide. She takes risks with her own safety, Anson agrees to a macabre shoot and someone is following her. She receives a videocassette in the post featuring a girl tied to a chair, beaten and murdered. Is it faked or a snuff film? There is a twist that is not much of a twist at all, and the next tape comes with a greater shock in it for the girl. Jiney is abducted by the maniac and finds herself in the chair for the dark and daft conclusion.

The film runs 97 minutes on 45 minutes of material. The story is restricted by a handful of characters. Though the performances are fine the roles barely developed by the poor, sparse script. The small cast also denies the film the space to deliver twist upon twist. The story has nothing bold or original on offer. Oh, something is made of Jiney offering to join her tormentor and making a murderous relationship of it, but this is a ploy to stay alive until the table can be turned on her assaulter. The preposterous escape and slaying of the perpetrator can only be guffawed at. For a film that explores the camera's immediacy and ugly honesty in its capturing of death, the murders should be more convincingly attempted and the corpses more realistic. Instead the dead are blandly posed actors. The car fatality may have fallen asleep. The suicide could have landed on a pillow. The blood around her on the pavement is not splatter, but pools out from underneath her like undiluted Ribena. When Jiney and Jas, having watched it, discuss the videocassette, Jas has questions as to the veracity of the footage... and so might anyone doubt the sequence, this viewer wasn't going for it. Ab-Normal Beauty is not as strong as some of the old-school style American horror films that smack the screens and wallops the audiences today. It fails to convince on the horror front, to fulfil the criteria for shock, which, considering the theme of snuff, the ultimate on filmic horror, is an incontestable mistake. It is then plain stupid for the girl to be seen to purchase a book on Peter Joel Witkin and flip the pages into the camera depicting images of very real decapitated heads in a kiss. It only more resoundingly hammers of the phoniness of Ab-Normal Beauty's deaths and murders. It is a film beset with bogus convictions.

The growling and crashing music rushes in to accompany the birth of her compulsion to film the morbid, recalling the scores for Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Bullet Ballet. The subtitling is in that of comical, broken English, but is unlikely to be hiding any great dialogue from the original Mandarin or Cantonese. "Love is selfish by itself"; "Jas, you get everything: why commit suicide... the I Jasmine, have to die to many times"; "You keep on fighting me by stealth"; "No, if you are fat, there is no fairy lady in the world"; "Just clam down, tell me slowly"; "Who dammit are you?"; "I'm not grudge to die at this moment!" It is unbelievable that Tartan could be happy to take this film with these subtitles. I have either been bunged a dud review copy or it goes to show that the label has little real faith in the film and will only commit lazily to bringing it to UK shelves.
Ab-Normal Beauty

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