Around the turn of the millennium, the Pang brothers were quickly making a name for themselves as leading horror directors. When they decided to join the Asian suspense wave, their careers took sudden flight. Ab-normal Beauty [Sei Mong Se Jun] is one of those early Pang horror films, though it's really an Oxide Pang solo. The first time I watched it I struggled with the film, though the good clearly outranked the bad and overall I found it to be an impressive piece of horror cinema. Eager to see how the film fared 15 years later, I gave it another shot.
The Pangs started out making crime films and had managed to capture people's attention, still the release of The Eye raised their profiles considerably. By then it was clear that Oxide was the one with the biggest aspirations, as he'd already done a few solo projects that showed noticeably more ambition. Ab-normal Beauty only strengthened the notion that Oxide didn't feel content with just direction basic horror flicks. His solo work tends to go against the grain, though always keeping the dark and gruesome close to its core.
While most Asian horror directors were trying to outdo each other with frightening ghost stories, Oxide Pang was looking elsewhere for inspiration. Ab-normal Beauty is two parts obsession, one part torture porn. It's a rather odd mix of horror elements that never quite gel together, but they make for an intruiging watch nonetheless. Even though the first hour and the final 30 minutes feel quite disjointed in style and tone, plot-wise the film makes adequate sense and the turnaround is pretty much one big meta-twist, something Oxide Pang is quite prone to.
The film follows Jiney, a talented art student who is best friends with Jen. The both of them are into photography and often go out on collaborative shoots, but things take a dark turn when one day Jiney witnesses a car crash. She can't help herself and starts taking pictures of the morbid scene in front of her, unearthing a deeply rooted fascination with death and decay. Jen notices the changes in Jiney but can't really get through to her. Slowly the two start to drift apart and Jiney looks elsewhere for support.
The subject matter of Ab-normal Beauty is a perfect excuse for Pang to go insane with the visual style. Creative color filters, expressive lighting techniques and strong, bold colors supplement the intrusive camera work. Not everyone is going to appreciate Pang's need for excessive styling, but it's one of the things that draws me to his films and sets him apart from his peers. There are plenty of directors who can shoot moody horror, but few of them manage to come close to Oxide Pang's darkly colorful and mysterious universes.
The soundtrack is pretty interesting too. I actually wasn't all that impressed with the music the first time around, but it didn't bother me at all now. Maybe it's because the soundtrack isn't very typical for a horror film, being more ethereal and docile in nature. I can imagine being bothered by it when expecting a core horror film, but considering how Ab-normal Beauty turns conventions on its head anyway, it's really not a bad score. Combined with the visuals, it makes for some impressively stylized moments.
The acting too is solid, even though Race and Rosanne Wong aren't the most prolific actresses. It's true that Oxide Pang does most of the heavy work for them, but there is a small dramatic undercurrent that's helped by good performances from both leads. Secondary characters are a little flakier, but their parts are mostly functional, as the film keeps a very strong focus on its main characters. It's not a film that will win the cast any award, but there's nothing to complain about either.
If you're looking for some simple genre filler, Ab-normal Beauty may not be the best choice. It's not as if the film lacks horror elements, on the contrary, but Pang's persistence to drift off the beaten path makes this a film that requires some effort, even if it is still quite limited. The turnaround halfway through is not trivial and the shifts in mood can be very sudden. All of these things are positives in my book, but if you go in with different expectations it might be difficult to turn them around once you start watching.
That said, Ab-normal Beauty remains one of the stand-out Pang films. Oxide Pang's signature style is on full display here, with superb visuals, an atmospheric score and some dark and gauntly material that forms the basis for a unique and haunting horror film. Whether you'll appreciate Ab-normal Beauty has probably a lot to do with how strongly you feel about Oxide Pang's style, but the very least you can say about him and his work is that it brings something unique to the table.