Director/cinematographer/co-writer Baatar Batsukh ends his new film Aberrance with a dedication to Darren Aronofsky, acknowledging the former indie darling/now-Academy Award-winning director’s influence on Batsukh’s own low-budget psychological horror-thriller. A more proper shoutout might be to Park Chan-wook, from whom Batsukh has borrowed a certain hyperactive visual hyperbole — slick widescreen images that suffer from a surfeit of “one-perfect-shot” syndrome. It’s not a great film, in other words, although not without some small merits. But Batsukh’s attempt to chart the dissolution of a marriage between a mentally unstable woman and her oafish, abusive husband mistakes a plethora of ostentatious style for substance, employing an insistent score and ludicrous camera calisthenics to beat the audience into submission. It’s barely a narrative, functioning more like a demo reel or a calling card.
The film begins with Erkhmee (Erkhembayar Ganbat) and Selenge (Selenge Chadraabal) arriving at a well-appointed house in the mountains of Mongolia. Selenge seems quiet and aloof, while Erkhmee attempts to cheer her up with talk about the clear mountain air and how the peace and quiet will do them some good. Before they’re done unpacking, a friendly neighbor, Yalalt (Yalalt Namsrai), has already introduced himself, leading to some glowering from Erkhmee. Then Selenge finds a dead cat out by the garbage and things suddenly devolve; in rapid succession, it’s revealed that Selenge is suffering from some kind of disorder and that Erkhmee is a particularly brutal caretaker, admonishing her for refusing her medication and force-feeding her soup when she declines to eat. Selenge has vivid nightmares, and despite her entreaties, Erkhmee refuses to let her leave the house. Yalalt witnesses some of these interactions, and begins snooping around to gather more evidence.
Eventually, his anonymous report to the police backfires when Erkhmee instantly susses out that Yalalt made the call, and a later effort to win him over goes awry when Yalalt gets drunk and accuses Erkhmee of domestic abuse in front of Selenge and two of her friends. It’s a volatile mixture of rage and resentment, which Batsukh diffuses in the most asinine way possible; rather than building tension and following any of these plot threads, he instead switches gears about halfway through the film and begins focusing on Yalalt, who might not be as nice as he appears. It’s the kind of twist that takes careful calibration to pull off, but here it’s simply ludicrous, a bald-faced attempt to snooker the audience. Even worse is a last-minute plot reveal that wants to be shocking but instead doubles down on the already bountiful stupidity on display.
Throughout the film, Batsukh revels in all manner of over-the-top visual trickery and stylistic overkill. Conversations are filmed in nauseating whip pans, and there are ridiculous POV shots galore. This is the kind of movie where it takes multiple cuts from jarringly incongruous angles to convey a simple action like a character emptying food into a garbage can. Batsukh has a good eye for simple, evocative widescreen compositions, doing particularly nice work with the natural beauty of the snowy mountain landscapes. But the contrast between modes doesn’t work at all — it’s like a solemn A24 picture occasionally interrupted by frantic music video antics. All of this adds up to nothing much, a 75-minute wisp of a movie that lumbers awkwardly from genre to genre — a mishmash of thriller, slasher, and crime tropes blended and shaken. One thing is clear: Batsukh the director and Batsukh the cinematographer both need better collaborators.
DIRECTOR: Baatar Batsukh; CAST: Selenge Chadraabal, Sukhee Ariunbyamba, Erkhembayar Ganbat; DISTIRBUTOR: Freestyle Releasing; IN THEATERS: October 6; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 15 min.
Originally published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 11.