For those who do not know already, Sundance Channel has a series called “Asian Extreme” in which it show cases primarily horror films and thrillers from respected and up and coming Asian directors. Like the name of the Channel itself, the name of the series has some questionable cultural connotations, however the series itself often provides the first if not the only glance most N. American audiences will have at these particular films (unless you have access to a good alternative video store like I do).
This month’s highlighted film is Ab-Normal Beauty/ Sei Mong Se Jun, a film about a female photographer obsessed with images of death. The film covers a lot of trite ground as it lumbers toward its multiple unsatisfactory endings. So why bring it up?
I happen to be a big fan of once banned French lesbian slasher flick High Tension for its ability to excite and terrorize without reifying typical derogatory images of queer communities. Ab-Normal Beauty similarly manages to give us an unhinged lesbian character without implying that all lesbians are lunatic killers. What these films have in common is that they do exploit the genre of the “crazy lesbian” and for the unsophisticated watcher they can easily be seen to support the derogatory heteronormative imagining of queer cinematic space. Yet both films’ narratives work against such a read and that is what elevates them above such films as Basic Instinct and Mercy which fail miserably at moving past stereotype to real exploration.
But wait, didn’t I just say Ab-Normal Beauty was trite? Yep.
The problem with the film is in the writing and the derivative staging. It wants to be so many other, better, horror flicks from the same region instead of just being its own. The white faced, wet-haired, wide-eyed “scary” happens regularly as a result and is seldom necessary nor scary. Worse, the film really does run like a bad “lesbian gone crazy” film for the bulk of the story. The main character was raped as a child by her cousin and beaten for it by her mother who does not believe her and it is this tension that makes her declare over and over “I will never love boys.” Worse the attack is revealed in a scene that clearly looks like a masturbation sequence in which the main character is getting off on her sexual abuse and we the audience are clearly supposed to be titillated. (See the problem?!) It is also the reason for her fascination with death which all stems from a particular act of retribution you can guess at but is revealed finally at the end of the film. Her fear of predatory men leads her to attack, abuse, and consider killing a male suitor whose inability to comprehend the very clearly stated fact that she has a girlfriend who she loves, and whose stalking over her with a camera all over town for a “music video,” go largely unexamined as predatory behavior. And again, the confrontation scene involves heavy sexual inuendo for the audiences “pleasure.” Her redemptive moment is also undermined by her actual guilt (I’d say more but that would ruin the ending, if you manage to get that far.)
On the other hand, the movie takes a sugary detour into the realm of love store mid-way through the film that redeems its mainstream homophobic narrative. The main character’s girlfriend actually helps the girl regain her sanity. She helps her work through her past abuse and defeat both her suicidal and homicidal thoughts. She also gets her to reconcile with her mother. Had the film ended with the over the top happy breakfast they had the following morning, I would have called it cheesy but praised its “twist” from abnormal to normal. More importantly, since it does not end here, I think the assertion of this narrative of love and strength which appear briefly at two other moments near the end of the film, speak to a queer reading of the film.
And when I do queer the way I read the film, I cannot help but wonder what interventions occurred between concept to screen play and from screen play to film. It is clear that there is a story about normality lurking underneath the mainstream narrative of abnormality. The film’s premise and its various “gazes” could easily have played as a critique of male privilege and hyper-masculine desire. The female relationships in the film between mother and daughter and between partners could have also explored the strain and triumph of female homosocial bonds, desire, and kinship in more capable hands. And the final scene could have played like a feminist anthem ala “Goodbye Earl” rather than a final confirmation of pathology. The could haves in this film make me think that they were in fact supposed to bes, as in supposed to be filmed like this, supposed to have followed the written script here and there, supposed to have told a completely different story . . .
There is also a fascinating critique of art and beauty and power in this film that is mired by both its heterosexist overlay and its desire to be every scary movie on the planet. Had they used these elements more successfully, this film could have been a fascinating exploration of the lines between art and madness and/or the redemptive power of art. It is after all, through art that the main character finds herself and her resolution and it is also through art that the other characters in this film try to find themselves.
In the end, Ab-Normal Beauty is not a good movie. I would not recommend it for entertainment viewing. As an academic who teaches queer courses on the other hand, I think it is worth a classroom discussion or two.