Ab-normal Beauty

Ab-normal Beauty


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

In both their solo projects and collaborations, Hong Kong twin filmmakers Danny and Oxide Pang have rightly earned the reputation of being amongst Asia's preeminent visual stylists, even if there is rarely enough substance in their highly derivative films (Bangkok Dangerous, The Eye trilogy, The Tesseract, Leave Me Alone) to match up to the dazzling spectacle.

Ab-normal Beauty, however, with its thematic emphasis on camerawork, the gaze and warped aesthetics, seems tailor-made for the brothers' special talents, offering director Oxide and co-producer Danny the space to explore, dramatise and, above all, display their obsession with ocular wizardry. It will come as no surprise to their fans that the film is a phantasmagoria of sickly colours, psychedelic flourishes and jarring optical tics, all reflecting the state of mind of a character way out on the edge.

Copy picture

Make no mistake about it: Ab-normal Beauty is eye candy for the deranged.

Talented photography student Jiney (Race Wong) would rather spend time brooding in her darkroom than talking with her mother (Michelle Mee) and prefers the company of her girlfriend Jasmine (Rosanne Wong) to that of boys, like fellow student Anson (Anson Leung). Left alone for a month while her mother is away on business, Jiney witnesses and photographs the aftermath of a violent car accident, only to find that the experience triggers within her a new, strangely erotic desire to capture on film the exact moment of a death. Haunted by hallucinatory visions and dangerous urges to kill either herself or others, she slips into madness, with only Jasmine anchoring her to anything like reality, but when an anonymous admirer sends photographs and videos depicting a girl being clubbed to death, she is forced to call upon her own darkest secrets to confront the sadistic killer who is tearing her life apart.

If the film is full of sumptuous, at times shocking, pleasures for the eye, its plot is somewhat harder to assess, owing to a deep vein of ambiguity running through it that never receives the expositional closure that would, one suspects, be required of any Hollywood remake. Choose to regard Ab-normal Beauty as the tale of a sensitive young woman in crisis whose efforts to regain her sanity are impeded by an Argento-esque slasher (complete with mask and raincoat) and you are bound to complain of the film's unoriginality, asymmetry and terribly mishandled slash-and-dash ending. There is no denying that guessing the identity of Jiney's twisted persecutor is, on any literalist reading, hardly difficult, given the extreme paucity of suspects.

Paying closer attention, however, several questions arise that challenge so simplistic a response. How exactly are the flashbacks to a primal episode in Jiney's childhood related to the film's main events? How can it be that, when Jiney takes her first, crucial photo of the car accident, the camera's lens cap is visibly in place? Why does Jasmine occasionally use her own name to address Jiney? Such discontinuities (and there are many more) point to a rather different film, whose plot develops, much like photographic film, mostly in Jiney's disturbed mind rather than in the world outside the confines of her darkroom.

Burdened by a terrible secret, she struggles through her art to come to terms with the parts of herself that she would rather forget and creates a psychodrama of invented personae, who refract different aspects of her own unstable character. If, for instance, David Lynch's Lost Highway and Kim Jee-woon's A Tale Of Two Sisters have already presented characters who try to escape past trauma by projecting their own identities onto fantasy figures, then Pang duly acknowledges the influence of both films, the former through the motif of the anonymously delivered videocassette and the latter through the casting of two actual sisters, Race and Rosanne Wong, better known in Hong Kong as the pop duo 2R.

Whether it is regarded as a moody thriller, or a twisted head-trip, Ab-normal Beauty is the Pangs' exquisitely disorienting portrait of an artist as a troubled soul - beautiful, bloody and rather bewildering.

Reviewed on: 22 Sep 2005
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Portrait of the artist as a troubled soul.
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Merlin Harries **1/2

Director: Oxide Pang

Writer: Oxide Pang, Pak Sing Pang

Starring: Race Wong, Rosanne Wong, Anson Leung, Michelle Mee, Ekin Cheng

Year: 2004

Runtime: 101 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Hong Kong


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