Lesbian Slashers Oh My! (Ab-Normal Beauty Spoilers)

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.

abnormal-beautyThe 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.

11 thoughts on “Lesbian Slashers Oh My! (Ab-Normal Beauty Spoilers)

  1. I think you are hung up on the fact that two of the characters in the film are lesbians. In this, you are focused only on that aspect of things, which you prove by saying “[As an academic who teaches queer courses…I think it is worth a classroom discussion or two.]” And also, by accompanying it with High Tension. The movie is about dementia not lesbians. I’m not saying it’s a good movie about dementia but just because a movie has a gay couple in it does not automatically mean the movie is, or should be, about their relationship. Perhaps this way of thinking may have affected your perception of the film. And I would say it probably affects many other aspects of your life where the main focus isn’t where you thought or hoped it would be.

  2. welcome to the blog pat. The film is about dementia. Nor does that fact negate the rape storyline, the queer story line, or even the exploration of art and self-expression storyline all of which I touch on here. Perhaps you should spend a little more time being introspective about what your issues are with one of the focuses of this post being on the relationship of the main character and her gf and the subsequent conclusions you think you can draw about me and my regrets, “hopes,” and “focus.” Clearly neither an aspect of a film or a person can be negated just because other aspects exist or those aspects make you uncomfortable. If you really could know me as well as you seem to think from a single blog post, you would know that I don’t believe in regrets and with regards to this subject matter both from an intellectual and personal stand point, I am quite satisfied with the focus of my life thanks.

  3. One subject of the film does not negate another, you are right. My point was more along the lines of the fact that Jin and Jas’s relationship was very trite, like you had said yourself of the movie. The “F’ed” up girl is loved by the normal girl trying to save her. It does not warrant a discussion, I don’t believe, any more than say Ashton Kutcher’s role in “Dude Where’s My Car” and his relationship with the other lead actor whose name I’m not sure of and don’t care to find out. They are both equally silly movies. But the sad truth is that since Jin and Jas are lesbians it is a big deal in our society, warranting a classroom discussion, even in 2008. I guess in the end it is just my “hope” that in this day and age a movie with lesbians isn’t automaticaly considered a “lesbian slasher” anymore than a movie with heterosexuals would be called “straight slashers.”

  4. Pat – thank you for the clarity with regards to your comments about the film at least. Let me try and clarify as well by making two points – both of which you seem to have missed in a desire to focus on discomfort over a discussion of lesbians.First, I want to draw your attention back to the thesis of my post for a moment, even though you partially quoted it in your original comment, “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.” I teach popular culture, including representations of queer identity in that culture. One of the great things about popular culture of late is that it is incorporating queer identities more successfully than in the past. Hence why I mention a series of genre specific films in this post, not just High Tension. My point is to show a progression from the “lesbian slasher” film which represents a regressive and oppressive sub-genre depiction of sexuality and identity produced by and for a straight audience to one that is trying to dismantle or examine those issues both on the part of straight and queer productions. In High Tension for instance, sexuality is largely absent from the film until the very end pre-empting an initial viewing of the film as a “lesbian slasher” for most viewers and titillating viewers with a new read at it’s end. In Ab-normal Beauty the lesbian relationship is central to the the story line on several levels including: the healing and sense of normalcy that it brings to a rapidly unhinging protagonist, the use of that relationship to explore other central themes in the film like the rape, mother-daughter relationship, use(s) of art, and final because the lover is targeted both passively by the male suitor and the serial killer as a threat to their “sexual rights.” The film weaves the relationship so carefully into the storyline in order to normalize it in an otherwise abnormal world. This normalcy runs counter to other films mentioned in this post that rely on the inherent abnormanlity of queerness. Where it fails in the latter, as I point out in the post, is the sexual abnormality it ascribes to its protagonist and the ways this reflects back on her sexual identity. Thus both films represent major shifts in the thriller/slasher genre while also embedding some residual content. The tension between these is what is “worthy of a discussion or two” in a media classroom with regards to sexuality. Put more simply, queer media studies is about studying queer representation in the media and that is *one* aspect of what this post addresses.The second issue is about a reductive reading of this post. I also teach Women’s Studies which means that I teach about gendered oppression, representations of female subjecthood, and LBT women among other things. My post, and my initial comment to you, point out several important storylines in this film: sexuality (both heterosexual and homosexual), gender based violence, the eroticization of that violence, hetero-patriarchal normativity depicted as both normal and pathological at varying points, mother and daughter relationships, & art and identity exploration. These themes are all present in the film and in my post. Yet you insist on claiming this post is about a single issue: lesbians and their relationship.To compare these themes to a largely heteropatriarchal reliant film like “Dude Where’s My Car?” is impossible except in the ways masculinity is crafted in that film according to a particular unquestioned script. In fact, both films could easily be taught from the vantage point on a course on depictions of masculinity and patriarchy but I don’t teach those subjects. I address the listed issues in my post, precisely because I am arguing that this film could be teachable in certain contexts, namely popular culture courses that address sexuality and gender. I also argue that devoid of such a discussion it is a throw away film because it is derivative as a thriller and trite in its execution which you mention my having said the film was trite in your comment but seem to not connect that to the larger argument I am making. Again, I would encourage you to think about why a discussion of lesbian identity makes you so uncomfortable that you felt the need to: 1. ignore the other content in this post, 2. to demean me and my life to quote “And I would say it probably affects many other aspects of your life where the main focus isn’t where you thought or hoped it would be.” on the basis of this review, and 3. to demean women in general with such comments like “the F’ed up girl” or by erasing them all together by comparing a long term committed lesbian relationship to a male homosocial one dependent on a homophobic site gag and rampant heterosexuality. I would also disagree with your assertion that heterosexuality is irrelevant in media. Heteronormativity may make it appear so, particularly to those who invest in heterosexism. In the slasher genre masculinity and heterosexuality are often hyperdized in order to posit certain key connections between sex, violence, gender, and power. This fact is agreed upon by both feminist theorists and the leading minds on masculinity studies. Even in the “Asian Extreme” films on Sundance which feature female villians more often than not, there is often a tie back to these themes and/or childhood trauma between girls which one could argue is also part of heteropatriarchal competition and/or divisions created to uphold it. Queer characters in many of these films are often stand ins for heteropatriarchal anxieties, and thus their presence can lead to a better understanding not only of heterosexism but the dynamics that underly certain identities and relationships. Thus you are right to say that in this post-modern/modern world we should be able to encounter sexuality in our films without it eclipsing other issues. My post, as I have said repeatedly, is about multiple issues and themes centered around the slasher film genre and therefore not guilty of the totalizing gaze that seems to be present in this discussion. I’m going to encourage you again to take stock of your own reactions to the post and the comments I have made which you have deftly avoided addressing. Then ask yourself the hard questions I keep pointing to. Finally, try and remember: it is just a movie, a really bad one, and this is just a blog.

  5. You seem to have missed my point and misread my post.A loving relationship between two people = A loving relationship between two peopleIt should not matter what their sexuality is. They should be regarded with the same equality.A quick side note: It would almost seem like you’re looking to confirm a belief that all men hate women . . . As for saying Jin was “F’ed” up. This is not a gender issue. I’m from one of the largest cities in the U.S. It’s also home to some of the best schools in the country. We are a melting pot. You can’t live here if you are homophobic, racist, or uncomfortable with people that aren’t like you. I guess for some people that live out in the woods, of say Kansas, this is as close as they will get to a real lesbian relationship and they may find it worthy of examining to get a better idea of lesbian culture.If you really want to watch a lesbian film try Spider Lilies.Thank you for this discussion.

  6. por su orden.

    for those who don’t know, Spider Lilies is a film about a web sex cam girl who encounters her first crush in a tattoo shop and thus begins “a torrid attraction” in the present interspliced with a trauma from the past & sex-related web cam broadcasts. It stars a former Taiwanese pop idol and her equally young-slender-long- haired-straight-appearing co-star and is shot to simulate the imagined web cam viewer in multiple points in the film. It is a completely different genre than the films in/subject matter of this post. (Its comparatives are often: Sugar Sweet, My Wife’s Lover, & Tokyo Sex if that helps give you the genre.)

    The only thing Spider Lilies and Abnormal Beauty have in common is that both feature Asian lesbians and a “mystery” from the past. Again, proving my point that Pat keeps avoiding: I am not the one obsessed with Lesbians in this discussion. And until the person who is addresses their discomfort we will continue to talk in circles about the point of this post and the themes of this film.

    • Drew you are welcome to excerpt up to 5 lines from this post as long as you cite it; either cite by saying “prof susurro @ like a whisper blog” with the blog name as a link or do a full citation prof susurro. (1/2/08)”Lesbian Slashers Oh My! (Ab-Normal Beauty Spoilers).” full blog link or make title link & date you accessed it to copy the 5 lines. Please keep in mind that this blog has both a copyright & a common’s license that are strictly enforced by an e-discovery legal team. If you want more general information on citations, you can also check the blogger’s right’s link and the common’s license links at the top right hand side of the blog.

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