“Ab-normal Beauty” (Sei mong se jun), written by Oxide Pang and his twin brother Pak Sing Pang, and directed by Oxide alone, explores ground already investigated by Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell and, almost concurrently with “Ab-normal Beauty,” Takashi Shimizu (whose “Marebito” was released a few weeks before Pang’s film). “Rear Window” and “Peeping Tom” both present metaphors for our fascination with seeing on film things too awful to see in person. The camera, like a murder weapon, is neutral until a use is found for it.
Jiney is an art student living with her mother. Her best friend—and we come to suspect more than best friend—is Jas. They are both photographers and the roam about the city of Hong Kong snapping pix of whatever catches their attention. A young man named Anson (Anson Leung) has a crush on Jin. She rebuffs him gently; Jas tells him to bugger off.
Jin’s mother leaves town on a business trip, planning to be gone about a month, and left alone at home Jin allows her boredom with life to show. One day she happens upon a fatal car crash. The appearance of corpses on the street overwhelms her and she begins to take pictures furiously. Jas helps her develop them and is repulsed by the images of blood and injury. “Death,” Jin says, “is the ideal photo—scary and exciting.”
She starts to unravle. She makes a skin-tight mask—when worn, it is death’s face. She begins to see blood where these isn’t any blood. Visiting an outdoor market, Jin pays a butcher to kill chicken after chicken so she can photograph them as they die. Her darkroom becomes cluttered with shots of dead birds, dogs and fish. Her excuse to Jas is that she just wants to add a new element to her work.
She buys a collection of death photos gathered together in a book. She thinks the pictures are beautiful. “Pressing the shutter is like death in that it stops the subject.” Her greatest thrill comes from seeing a potential suicide atop a tall building. When the girl jumps, Jin follows her descent, snapping pictures all the way to the sidewalk.
Why, suddenly, has this passion for death seeped to the surface of Jin’s psyche? She tells Jas about the time when, as a young girl, she was molested by three boys and her own mother’s failure to believe her story. But is that enough to make the change we see in her believable? Is it just the sight of bloody death by traffic accident that sets this terrible change in motion?
When we hear, and see in flashback, the story of her youthful rape, we expect the film will move along with that new plot element to explain what is happening with this lovely and talented young woman, but suddenly the picture takes a sharp turn into more standard thriller country.
Jin finds on her doorstep a video tape. “Take a look” is scratched on the box, and when she does she sees a moment right out of “feardotcom”—a young woman is chained to a chair, begging for release, when a masked man (we assume) beats her to death with a length of lead pipe.
We’ve been jolted as severly as Jin has. What has this movie become? Are we to think, as the girls do, that Anson is responsible for some kind of sick joke? Is Jas secretly a sadistic killer? Is Jin, or is the masked man on the tape a reflection of her own madness? Jin has already expressed the fear that she might lose control and really kill someone for the sake of taking pictures of the body. The sudden shift in plot emphasis is jolting, but perhaps the Pangs are telling us that it takes a change from art to reality to shake us out of our routine existence.
The Pang Brothers insinuate themselves into the film by casting sisters in the roles of best friends/possible lesbian lovers. Race Wong, as Jiney, and Rosanne Wong, as Jas, are the two halves of the Cantopop music duo “2R.” As their characters become involved in reproducing life in photography and painting instead of living it, so have the Pangs made a similar choice.
Strictly on the level of thriller, the film has nice moments during the first story line as we watch Jin’s descent to madness and wonder what will happen to her, and others during the last third or so as the gore level increases considerably and the intellectual pondering of the first part give way to a more visceral reaction.
And the Wong sisters are superb as Jin and Jas. Apparently, Jin (the younger of the two) is having a more successful film career, although they have made films as co-stars. One made a year before “Ab-normal Beauty” is a parody of the international hit cop thriller “Infernal Affairs,” recently remade by Martin Scorsese as “The Departed.” The Hong Kong comedy is entitled, sublimely, “Love is a Many Stupid Thing.”
But here in “Ab-normal Beauty” the sisters are terrific. They are both quite lovely, but neither of them relies on looks to win our affection. More often than not, they appear just like students, attractive but not made-up or dressed to kill. They sell the friendship and, on another level of unease, the more-than-friendship convincingly. Jas is not just the disposable friend of the protagonist about whom we really don’t care too much. She works her way into our affection as completely as does the character with the interesting problem.
So many American horror films are concerned almost exclusively with dying and dying badly. “Ab-normal Beauty” is about preferring a bad death to an even worse life.