Art student Jiney (Race Wong) is bored with her work. She carries her camera around dutifully, but can't find inspiration in her surroundings. One afternoon she witnesses a fatal car accident and impulsively photographs a dead body- the thrill of capturing the delicate moments between life and death awaken a new passion. She moves on to photographing dead animals, going so far as to orchestrate their bloody demises at the butcher shop- as the cleaver chops harder and faster, Jiney furiously clicks the shutter.
Boundaries of taste, already strained to the breaking point, are obliterated when she captures a suicidal woman's plummet from rooftop to sidewalk. Though she thrives on the adrenaline rush, Jiney is troubled by all the death surrounding her- she begins to hallucinate. The model in her painting class begins to bleed- is this a manifestation of Jiney's guilt over dabbling in the macabre, or is Ab-Normal beauty going to turn into Shutter? Is this a cameras steal souls and the ghosts want revenge flick? I mean, it is an Asian horror film, after all, so it must feature vengeful ghosts, right?
Nope. That adrenaline rush that Jiney feels is like that provided by any other drug or extreme behavior; she becomes desensitized and she must push herself further in order to feel anything at all. You know how it is- you get hooked on the giddy feeling from a glass of Riunite, so you drink a glass every day. When a glass isn't enough to make you giddy, you start downing a bottle a day. When that no longer works, you chase that bottle of Riunite with a box of Franzia. When, after all that, you still remember that your life is a complete fuck-up, you drink everything in the house to ease the pain, right down to that jug of Jean Naté After Bath Splash your gramma gave you when you were 8 but for some reason it's still sitting at the back of your closet.
So, when Jiney brandishes a butcher knife during a photo session with a friend, you think maybe Ab-Normal Beauty will become that kind of movie and Jiney is going to go around killing people for the art of it all.
But it's not. As memories resurface and we learn more about Jiney, the film becomes something else altogether, something more compelling than the two movies it could have been, something with a bit more substance. I love that the ride didn't end up where I thought it was going to, and that the twists and turns of the narrative weren't cheap or present simply for the (unshocking) shock value of a twist.
With Ab-Normal Beauty (Sei mong se jun, 2004), the Pang Brothers have outdone themselves with regards to style. The film- virtually every frame- is so beautiful that I want to eat it. I wouldn't even bother with condiments- that's how delicious it looks. At times the film may be a little too stylish for its own good- some music cues don't really jive with the action, and the climax is almost too murky to enjoy but sakes alive, they know how to work the frame.
The Human Centipede
Oh, Human Centipede. You're perhaps the most anticipated film in recent memory, solely based on your freakshow concept. An eeeevil surgeon grafts victims' asses to other victims' mouths to fulfill his insane vision: to create a human centipede...say whaaaaat? I think reactions to the concept went something like this: "Gross!" That "gross" was then followed by "Why?" The answer to the second reaction, according to writer/director Tom Six, is essentially the first reaction: it's a gross concept, so he made a movie out of it.
Unfortunately, The Human Centipede is little more than a gross concept. That concept, of course, is revealed when you read a synopsis or watch the trailer...so what is there to expect when the big reveal occurs long before you begin watching the film? Where can the movie go from, well, from showing the centipede? Sadly, it doesn't really go anywhere. Half an hour in you get your centipede, and then it all just sits there. Or rather, sometimes it sits there and sometimes it's made to crawl around. Regardless, not much happens.
Now, I don't think people are clamoring to see this movie because they think it's going to be some deep meditation on man's place in the universe or something. Let's face it- The Human Centipede appeals to that part of us- or, at least, that part of some of us- that wants to see something gross. A movie featuring asses attached to mouths and shared digestive tracts has to be disgusting, right? Like, the most shocking thing you've ever seen? Or, at least, the most shocking thing you've ever seen that's fiction, I guess I should say. I've seen about 20 seconds of 2 Girls, 1 Cup. I learned my lesson, and I think that my lingering childhood curiosity about gross things has been put to rest forever.
As such, I was happy to find The Human Centipede surprisingly tame. There's a bit of surgery, a bit of pus, and...not much else. It's not explicit in the least- rather, it's all implied. How this affects your enjoyment of the film (if "enjoyment" is the right word) is, of course, your bag, baby.
Without the expected shocks, though, what is there? Not much beyond some bad acting and a ridiculously over-the-top performance from Dieter Laser (best name ever) as evil Doktor Heiter. It had some enjoyable moments, but overall...well, who knew that ass-to-mouth could be so damn dull?
When Turistas hit in 2006, hot on the heels of Eli Roth's Hostel, I blew it off as...well, as a copycat of Hostel. "Torture porn" movies were en vogue, and frankly that ridiculously-named subgenre doesn't much appeal to me. However, the movie ended up on IFC recently and, I decided to give it a go- partially due to a "Why the hell not?" frame of mind and partially due to the fact that Olivia Wilde is in it. Even if it's the worst movie in the world, it's worth watching because come on you guys, she's so fucking pretty. Lucky me, it's not the worst movie in the world! In fact, I thought it was better than not the worst in the world- I kind of dug it.
To generalize, the horror community bitches an awful lot- mostly justified- about the vapidity of the genre's current output, about slickness of the retreads and rehashes, about how content seems to be dictated by boardrooms. Back in the day, horror filmmakers had something to say, dammit, about race relations and religion and society- all those Masters of Horror gave us substance with our scares, and why isn't anyone doing that today? It's all music videos and video games.
However, Turistas got me thinking (and talking with Heidi) about whether or not that complaint- that there's no relevance to these films- is true. There are undeniably themes explored in horror films made since September 11, 2001. Filmmakers are exploring the idea of "American vs Other" as countless groups of American ninnies travel to foreign lands and inevitably run afoul of the locals. Sometimes it's because the Americans have fucked up, and sometimes it's because...well, those foreigners are just plain savages, how do you expect them to treat outsiders? This sort of thing would never happen in the states! Obviously, I haven't done any in-depth analyzing of any of these movies, and I haven't yet figured out which side of the fence each particular film lies. Still, it's difficult not to notice a trend, and I think post-9/11 horror is worth exploring- films like Hostel, Turistas, Live Feed, Vinyan, Dying Breed, and The Human Centipede all apply. This isn't news, necessarily, but I'm just saying- maybe hindsight will reveal that some horror filmmakers have, at the least, intent where it was assumed there was none.
Mind you, I know that intent doesn't necessarily make a movie good, or render a horror movie effective. n this light, how was Turistas? Well, I said I kind of dug it. It's not nearly as torture-heavy as I'd anticipated. I'm not sure quite what it wants to be, if that makes sense- the "horror" aspects of the film take up very little of the running time, and there's an awful lot of "character development" time that doesn't actually develop any characters. The affair is helped by the serviceable acting from Wilde, Josh Duhamel, and, in particular, Melissa George. She's quietly becoming an unsung hero of indie horror, to the point where I'll pick something up if her name is on it. Why doesn't anyone ever talk about her?