Ab-Normal Beauty (DVD)

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

Directed by Oxide Pang

Released by Tartan Asia Extreme

What is it about death that fascinates us so? There's nothing we can do to stop it, it’s going to happen to everyone and no matter how we try, the chances of us studying it and what comes after will never increase. Still, on one level or another almost everyone is obsessed by it, be it their own or that of their loved ones. That’s just a part of the human condition.

Oxide Pang’s latest film, Ab-Normal Beauty, begins with the premise of a fairly normal girl (or so we think) becoming obsessed with the death of others, specifically capturing it on film. It’s an obsession that eventually leads her down a path of madness that might end with her committing murder herself.

Our heroine’s name is Jiney (Wong), a disaffected youth who’s mother is gone for weeks at a time on business, leaving her to her own devices and making sure she supplies her with enough money to live. Luckily, Jiney’s main device is a love of photography, one that is shared with her only friend, Jas (Mee). The two of them spend hours together photographing anything that seems interesting and there is an undercurrent to their relationship that they may be something more than friends.

Though she loves capturing still moments from life with her camera, Jiney is never truly happy with the pictures she takes until the day she witnesses a fatal car accident and, almost against her own will, photographs the victim in her last moments. Though at first she is disturbed with herself that she even took the picture, upon developing it she realizes that it’s the only photograph that she’s ever been truly satisfied with. Thus begins an infatuation with capturing the moment of death on film and studying more about those that do so for a living.

As her obsession grows, Pang shows us glimpses of what kind of person Jiney really is. Molested by her cousins at a young age, Jiney has never been able to let the scars of her past heal, mainly due to the fact that when she told her mother about it she was called a liar and punished. This had lead to some serious relationship issues, which explains why this beautiful girl only has one friend and continually dissuades a fellow male student (Leung) from pursuing her. She only allows herself to be close with one person, Jas, but her newfound fascination with death is putting a wedge in that relationship as well.

Eventually Jiney believes that only two things can come from her love of death; murder or insanity, and for the first hour of Ab-Normal Beauty you’re pretty sure they’re both going to win in varying degrees, especially when she convinces the aforementioned male student to participate in a photo shoot that closely resembles a slaughter, wherein she is brought to the very edge of her sanity.

Jas hasn’t given up on her friend, however, and saves her seemingly just in time. At this point the film takes a very colorful turn (up until now the pallet for Ab-Normal Beauty has been a bit subdued), and we’re lead to believe everything’s going to be okay for both of them. But there is someone out there who has noticed Jiney’s preoccupation with death, someone who is more than willing to cross the line from simply witnessing it to actually causing it, and they pick just the right moment to make themselves known. From the on things get very, very nasty (though somehow no less artsy) as Jiney tries to find out who is watching her and what their plans are for her.

I have to hand it to Pang; he knows how to craft a captivating thriller. Though towards the one-hour mark things were getting a little to disjointed for my tastes, once Jiney is seemingly pulled back from the brink of madness you’re lulled into a quite sense of comfort, even though you know it can’t be over yet. Throwing a kindred spirit in the mix right at the end serves to keep the film moving along and allows some closure to many of Jiney’s issues that she probably couldn’t have received through years of therapy. The switch in tone is what really made me appreciate the movie in its entirety, because the end wouldn’t serve to be nearly as important had the beginning not been so focused on Jiney’s breakdown.

Tartan’s release of the film on DVD does it justice. It’s got a very clear 5.1 audio mix and a transfer that greatly highlights the technique Pang used for the color palette, which was to digitize the entire movie and adjust the colors in post. It’s done seemingly all the time here in the U.S., but Pang admits on the behind-the-scenes featurette that it’s the first time he’s tried it in a film. This combined with the cinematography works to make Ab-Normal Beauty one of the best looking films the Pangs have done to date.

Features on the DVD include the aforementioned featurette, which consists of interviews with the principal cast and Oxide intercut with what I thought was way too much film footage. Entire scenes are played out for seemingly no reason other than to pad the running time but it’s still cool to hear Oxide talk about creating the film and just how deeply into her part Wong went.

In this documentary there are shots of Leung wrapped in plastic and being tortured that showed up in neither the movie nor any of the seven deleted scenes, which I can’t help but find strange. Though there are only clips from it, it looked like it would’ve been a very disturbing scene, but was probably exorcised because it made Jiney look a little too crazy. Of the seven deleted scenes, only one of them really stands out as completely out of character. It feature Jiney and Jas dancing in Jiney’s darkroom for what seems like forever. No, not slow dancing you pervs, just dancing. I’m glad it was left out, since it would’ve only served to confuse the viewer.

The rest of the features are just the trailer for Beauty, a photo gallery, and trailers for other Tartan releases.

Tartan’s done another great job with their release of Ab-Normal Beatuy, even if the features seem somewhat lacking. I found them to be just right in terms of length and content, so I’m not going to complain. Ab-Normal Beauty is definitely a step up from Pang’s Eye films, and shows that he has matured quite a bit since he started out. It gives me more hope for The Messengers, the Pang Brothers English-language debut, and I think you’ll be able to enjoy it, too, as long as you can get through the somewhat random middle section.

Special Features:
The Making of Ab-Normal Beauty
Deleted Scenes
Original Theatrical Trailer
Photo Gallery

4 out of 5

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