It was the subtitles what dunnit, guv.
Ah, Oxide and Danny Pang. Perhaps of the few names in Thai cinema liable to be recognised outside of their native land on the back of the excellent Bangkok Dangerous and a plethora of variable quality but certainly polished horror tales such as Bangkok Haunted and The Eye, it's always advisable to keep loose tabs on what they're up to. Their work tends to be distinctive, at least. The latest outing to hit multiplexes in Blightly is Ab-normal Beauty (aka Sei mong se jun) and while it's certainly distinctive, it's also distinctly bab. Bab with caveats, mind, but we'll get onto that later.
Jiney (Race Wong) is your typical angsty art student, as is her best friend Jas (Rosanne Wong) and camcorder-toting random bloke Anson (Anson Leung). Jiney's Mum (Michelle Mee) isn't a typical angsty art student, rather a distant mother continually snatched overseas for lengthy business trips. Things are not all sweetness and light for Jiney, a malaise caused by a continued disappointment in the art she's producing. Of all the things to start finding beauty in, Jiney chooses death, her photography of road traffic accidents, suicide victims and chicken choking (not in the euphemistic sense, you understand) finally proving to be a form Jiney can get behind.
This seems to be inextricably tied into Jiney's memories of a childhood molestation, a distressing act that her mother would not believe in much to Jiney's continued dismay. As though working through this trauma and the occasional fits and hallucinations her mental state brings isn't enough, some fruitcake seems to be delivering snuff videos to her door. How long before this psycho starts targeting Jiney and her friends? Given how close to the films conclusion this plot strand appears, not very.
The main overarching problem we've got with Ab-normal Beauty is the subtitling, which appears to be in a hybrid of pigeon English and double Dutch. We've seen some iffy subtitling in our time, but never anything quite this shockingly poor in a mainstream, comparatively wide release. Phrases are presented in random tense, so narrative causality becomes something of a hit and miss affair. As such, the potted recap above might not be one hundred percent accurate but it's about as best as I can piece together on short notice. It's no way to watch a film, and no basis on which to judge it really, but we can only work with what we're given.
Subtleties are destroyed utterly, indeed there's a whole sexual subtext to Jiney's fascination with death and her molestation that I'm largely baffled by as it's never really presented in a comprehensible way by whatever monkey was on subtitling duty. Largely it seems to have been a direct literal translation which at best just doesn't scan very well and forces a few seconds thought to rearrange into a speech pattern slightly more naturalistic, but at worst it's gibberish. If you habla con Cantonese then that's maybe not an issue, but for the crowd of gajins that hold the Tartan Asia Extreme Season in such regard it's a crushing disappointment. Bizarre also, as we assume part of the reason Tartan promote such a season is to attract newcomers to Asian cinema, or people unsure of it's merits. Something as rank amateur as the subtitling on Ab-normal Beauty could be doing serious harm to this goal.
Well, assuming we've at least got the general gist of what Ab-normal Beauty is trying to achieve, how well does it do it? Hmm, not very. For much of the time it's playing like some variant of Snake of June, languid, bizarre, somewhat abstract and not completely without charm. It's not doing anything meaningful enough to really care about in any specific terms, but that's a byproduct of the already lamented subtitles hindering any real empathy with Jiney.
Things head south rapidly once snuff tapes show up. It repositions itself, almost completely distinct from what's gone before it, as a race against time whodunnit with the main characters very lives on the line. Who could it possibly be? Well, given that there's only been three characters given more than three lines each the options are limited to them, or some random bit part character so obscure after he's revealed you'll need a director supplied flashback to remember who the hell he was. That possibly qualifies as a spoiler, I guess. Apologies, especially as it does a good enough job of spoiling itself by itself.
I can't really judge this completely fairly, I suppose. The ending is rather deeply unsatisfying, but there's no goodwill built up to excuse it before hand. Again, we're back to the subtitles. Sometimes this sort of thing is referred to as a stumbling block. It's not in this case, it's a stumbling skyscraper; an impenetrable wall for anyone unfortunate enough not to understand the language it's shot in. This review may have little relevance if you speak Cantonese, but then I doubt you'd be reading this were that the case. Sadly for us unilingual morons this film's atmosphere is completely spoiled by the laughably translated dialogue. Without the atmosphere, the film stutters and fades like a candle in a vacuum. Pity really, we can only hope that the DVD release gets something of a grip on this subtitle situation.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 2/5 TippyMarks.
Rosanne Wong (Jas)
Anson Leung (Anson)
Michelle Mee (Jiney's Mum)