Director: Oxide Pang
Starring: Race Wong, Rosanne Wong, Anson Leung
Several clichés exist regarding photography. Among them, two of the more prominent ones are “A picture is worth a thousand words” and “Take a picture! It’ll last longer!” Moments in time can fade from memory forever without this visual aid. Even in the case of a movie, if it goes unseen for long enough, it can be forgotten. I don’t know exactly how many years have passed since the one and only time I had previously seen “Ab-normal Beauty,” but it was long enough ago that I had managed to combine my recollections of it with another movie all-together. What that other movie is, I still don’t know (and that will be an investigation for another time), but what I do know is that the overall tone of “Ab-normal Beauty” and the film’s final thirty minutes or so took me completely by surprise.
Our main character is a real piece of work. Jiney (Race Wong) is a talented, award-winning art and photography student, and yet she’s unsatisfied. She has grown tired of taking the same boring nature photographs, looking for inspiration elsewhere. Jiney finds it at the scene of a fatal car crash (the same one depicted in “Leave Me Alone,” directed by Oxide Pang’s brother, Danny). Jiney’s inspiration grows into obsession, as she actively seeks to capture “the moment of death” wherever she can find it. At first, this is limited to the killings of chickens and fish at a food market, but soon even that is not enough. Eventually, Jiney is able to film the before, during and aftermath of a suicide, the deceased having jumped from the roof of a tall building.
I would say that this has been a slow descent into madness for Jiney but, in reality, the movie begins with her coming off as somewhat unhinged. Her lesbian friend Jas (Rosanne Wong, Race’s sister) worries for her, especially when Jiney turns the topic of conversation towards suicide. At first, it sounds like it’s just a matter of not being loved enough by her own mother, but it goes deeper than that. Some emotional scars were developed at an early age when Jiney’s cousin raped her, after which she pushed him down a flight of stairs, killing him. When she tried to talk to her mother about it, she was believed to be making it all up. That doesn’t leave much room for her mental anguish to do anything but stay bottled up.
Just when Jiney’s death obsession seems poised to carry her into the next step of committing murder in order to get her next great photograph, with Jas’s help she removes the temptation by destroying all of her macabre work. But all is not over, as shortly thereafter Jiney receives a package in the mail containing a videotape. When she watches, what she sees horrifies her. A girl is chained to a chair and slowly beaten to death by an unknown assailant. Jiney and Jas come to believe that the person responsible has to be someone who knew of Jiney’s obsession. Their one and only suspect is Anson (Anson Leung), a fellow art student whose only crime was being interested in Jiney. He did send her a video, it’s true, but by e-mail. The video in question was a music video meant to impress Jiney, not frighten her.
This is where the final, dark half-hour kicks into gear. Jiney later receives a second videotape from the same source. Another girl is shown chained to a chair and is beaten to death. Jiney recognizes immediately that the girl is her friend, Jas. She has no time to grieve before she is taken by the killer, and becomes the next girl to sit in the chair. With several cameras pointed at her to capture every angle, Jiney begins to understand what’s going on. The killer intends to show Jiney that, unlike her, he is committed to his obsession with death. Upon getting him to drop his guard, Jiney manages to break loose and hang him with his own chains. His identity concealed, Jiney removes his mask to reveal a face she recognizes from a prior meeting. The flashback is so brief that it leaves me a little confused. I think that he’s meant to have been the waiter at Jiney and Anson’s lunch date, but I’m not 100% sure. I suppose I could have gone back and checked, but I didn’t bother.
I’ve had my fill of Asian supernatural horror, which includes “The Eye” (another film by the Pang brothers). Thankfully, there is nothing supernatural about “Ab-normal Beauty.” There is, however, a certain disconnect created by the Cantonese-to-English translation, resulting in subtitles that often make no sense. Still, this robs nothing from Race Wong’s strong performance as Jiney. Pretty good for a Cantopop singer (she and sister Rosanne form the group 2R). It’s also clear that the people behind the camera have just as good an eye for what makes for good imagery as does Jiney. It’s just too bad that the story wrapped around them isn’t a more compelling or memorable one. I’ll be more likely to recall the basic elements of “Ab-normal Beauty” this time simply because I’ve chosen to write about it. Taking a mental picture helps the memory last longer.