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Ever since the global success of “The Eye”, the Pang brothers have become an increasingly hot property, and despite having only a few films under their collective belts, are now two of the most established and well-known names in Hong Kong cinema. For their latest efforts, whilst still giving each other a helping hand with editing, producing and writing, the two have directed separate films which, though stand alone stories in their own right, are both based around the effects of a car crash on different people. Whilst Danny Pang’s film, “Leave Me Alone”, focuses on the tale of Ekin Cheng, one of the actual drivers involved in the crash, brother Oxide takes a somewhat tangential approach, examining the effects of the crash on a passerby who witnesses and photographs the fatal accident.
As well as sharing the above incident, both films tackle similar themes, though in very different ways, and “Ab-Normal Beauty” is by far the darker of the two, and potentially the most interesting. The film is a fascinating and sinister exploration of a young woman’s growing obsession with death, which benefits hugely not only from Pang’s excellent direction, but from a genuine attempt to examine the mind of its central protagonist rather than simply exploiting the results of her actions. Although not completely successful, undoing much of its good work with an unsatisfying conclusion, “Beauty” stands above the vast majority of recent psychological horror thrillers, and is an entertaining film whose every frame is soaked with an ominous and morbid atmosphere.
We are introduced to Jiney (Race Wong, one half of pop duo ’2R’), a rather glum art student who spends most of her free time obsessively pursuing her photography hobby. One day, Jiney witnesses a fatal car crash, and though shocked by the sight of a woman’s dead body, she pauses and takes a photograph. The moment clearly acts as an awakening, and Jiney finds herself more and more fascinated with death and with capturing morbid images, much to the worry of bestfriend and lover Jas (Rosanne Wong, the other half of ’2R’) and would-be suitor Anson (played by Anson Leung, recently in the excellent “One Nite in Mongkok”).
Jiney’s new interest seems to be influence by traumatic experiences from her childhood, the memories of which pushes her almost to a state of psychosis before she manages to pull back from the brink. However, just as the future begins to look bright, Jiney receives a mysterious videotape containing what seems to be a snuff movie in which a young woman is tortured to death. As more tapes and photographs arrive, it becomes obvious that Jiney has attracted the attention of a dangerous stalker who seems intent on rekindling her obsession and pushing it to terrifying new heights.
“Ab-Normal Beauty” is a film with two very different parts. The first hour is taken up with a serious attempt to depict Jiney’s increasingly strange behavior, and to explain the possible reasons behind her disturbing new fixation. Pang does this very effectively, slowly notching up the tension as the extremity of Jiney’s actions escalates, whilst never losing sight of the character’s emotional confusion and suffering. Extra depth is added through Race Wong’s excellent performance, and the uncomfortable fact that her movie lesbian lover is played by her real life sister Rosanne. Pang uses all these facts to explore not only Jiney’s sexuality and self-image, but also her relationships with other people and the world in general.
Though we are treated to a number of unpleasant childhood flashbacks, they’re done in a fairly subtle way, and the viewer is credited with enough intelligence to fill in a few of the blanks or to make up their minds as to what may be behind Jiney’s dark state of mind. This first part of the film is slow but fascinating, and Pang shows great restraint in the few set pieces he allows to intrude on what is essentially a bleak, disturbing character study. However, around two thirds of the way through “Ab-Normal Beauty”, Pang rapidly shifts gears, and with the introduction of the stalker, the narrative changes to a more generic horror plot, complete with gory murders and a ‘guess the killer’ mystery.
Although the stalker storyline is somewhat at odds with the rest of the film, Pang does a good job of compressing everything into a short third act. And since there is very little time wasted, the extra subplot moves quickly, generating excitement with a couple of surprising deaths and some inventive nastiness. Unfortunately, after these intense and visceral scenes, Pang falters and badly mishandles the film’s climax. Without giving too much away, the identity of the gimpy, S&M-style killer is insultingly easy to guess (a fact which Pang seems oblivious to, because he even throws in a completely spurious flashback to ensure that we get the point), and his appearance feels like a cheat, tacked on to what has thus far been a surprisingly intelligent film.
Similarly, the final judgment of the film does not feature any kind of catharsis for Jiney, and as a result, her experiences and torments come off as little more than cold and ruthless punishments for her behavior, which is a little disappointing. Fortunately, Pang’s direction is excellent, and this prevents the film from leaving any bad taste in the viewer’s mouth. Accompanied by an atmospheric, ambient soundtrack, Pang finds some incredible moments of both beauty and grotesquery, and perfectly utilizes these to reflect the conflicts in Jiney’s mind.
There is a great deal of visual symbolism throughout, ranging from the more obvious use of shadows as ominous portents, to some inspired and inventive use of color which, although displaying the usual overuse of green neon seen too regularly in Hong Kong cinema (in particular films in the thriller and horror genres), gives the film a truly eerie look. Pang’s artistry, coupled with the emotional depth of the film’s first section, makes it easy to forgive the latter narrative lapses. Stylish, intriguing, and daring, “Ab-Normal Beauty” is a film whose themes and imagery beg further analysis, and which deserves to win further praise for the director’s unique talent.
Oxide Pang Chun (director) / Oxide Pang Chun (screenplay)
CAST: Anson Leung …. Anson
Race Wong …. Jiney
Rosanne Wong …. Jas