While I’m a tremendous fan of Hong Kong action cinema from a particular era (though mostly in general), I don’t happen to know too much about the film industries of other Asian countries. I’ve dabbled in movies from Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan, but I can’t say that I’ve ever come across a Mongolian film before. That’s what made the PR email for Aberrance so intriguing to me. Was this a good place to start on my journey?
I don’t think I can definitively answer that last one, but Aberrance is a fiendishly well-made film. Incredible direction, editing, and acting help to suck you into its tension-filled world. It really is a hell of a trip, which is not what I expected to be saying about a horror-adjacent film made on a relatively low budget. That said, there are some problems with its narrative that stop me from calling it an absolute must-see.
Director: Baatar Batsukh
Release Date: February 4, 2022 (Mongolia), March 13, 2023 (SXSW), October 6, 2023 (US Limited)
Aberrance begins not unlike many horror films by starting in media res. We see a woman running through the snowy wilderness of Mongolia in an extreme close-up. She’s breathing heavily and shuffling around to look for help before the title of the film slowly wipes onto the screen. That same wipe then reverses to show us two people in a car driving up to a secluded cabin. One is the same woman we just saw running, indicating that something awful is bound to happen.
An older couple named Erkhme (Erkhembayar Ganbat) and Selenge (Selenge Chadraabal) have moved out to the wilderness to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The cabin they have purchased is a bit bare, but it has all of the space they need to make themselves at home. Selenge is pleased that she has an art studio of her own and Erkhme has a hopeful look on his face that things will get better for them. After a small accident where Selenge breaks a vase, which was predicated by a jump scare, she goes outside to throw away the trash and notices a dead cat in the refuse.
Erkhme takes her back inside and we get our first hint of the troubles coming: Selenge has some kind of mental illness. As she removes her coat, a smattering of pills scatter across the ground and Erkhme becomes agitated. Selenge had promised to continue her medication and Erkhme believes she caused a situation to toss the pills. She forcibly shoves one into her mouth before a nosy neighbor (Sukhee Ariunbyamba) comes over to say hello.
In some bizarre way, I thought the entirety of Aberrance was going to be a story not dissimilar to the video game Hello Neighbor. You never quite have the clearest idea of what is happening in the film by design, so you’re left piecing together what information the film decides to give you. As such, you start to bond with the neighbor since he seems like a decent guy. He notices something fishy going on next door and decides to start investigating.
I don’t want to explain too much more as Aberrance truly does rely on its shock value and various twists to keep you engaged. The general plot is actually pretty basic and I’m not exactly sold on the final revelation, but that isn’t really the point. Aberrance, as its title would suggest, is about making you believe something out of the ordinary is afoot. Things aren’t quite what they seem and without spoiling too much, I will say that it is refreshing to watch a film dabble with the unreliable narrator trope.
What struck me the most with this movie, however, was the creative camera angles and electrifying editing. The film only runs 75 minutes, but it feels so much longer thanks to its constantly shifting and snappy editing. Apart from the cool title swipe, the first 10-ish minutes are relatively mundane until spooky things start to happen. In one scene, Erkhme gets close to Selenge and the camera cuts to the chair underneath and follows it as it gets pulled across the floor. The often parodied snorricam comes into play when the nosy neighbor is climbing the deck and falls. Even things completely ordinary like the side wall of the house are filmed with intense close-ups and dramatic framing to create a massive sense of space.
Aberrance can sometimes feel like a student film where someone just learned about every technique available, but then it blends all of these different skills seamlessly. You would be hard-pressed to tell me that these choices weren’t deliberate and I feel the film works all the better for them. Say whatever you will about the plot, the journey getting to that conclusion is constantly a joy to behold.
This is aided by an outstanding soundtrack from Ochsuren Davaasuren and Jargal Oyunerdene. Right from the moment go, the typical string instruments sound somewhat distorted and out of key. There’s a clear progression of scales, but the sound of it is off-putting and unpleasant. That eventually gives way to hyper-kinetic electronic beats that thump like the ringing of a headache. At one point later on, when all of the shit has hit the fan, we see a particular person standing outside with a hatchet and it practically feels like the intro to a Hotline Miami level. We cut to the inside of the house and the music is silent before returning outside to the chaos.
None of this should sound all that original to fans of horror, but it’s nice to see that the lessons of building tension for an audience haven’t been forgotten over the years. Too often in modern Hollywood horror, we see gore as a substitution for genuine fear. While I’m not sure you could 100% call Aberrance a horror film in the traditional sense, it most definitely feels like a film that would have been released in the 70s. This is like John Carpenter in his heyday having a field day with audience expectations.
It really is a shame that despite the solid acting from everyone involved, the plot simply falls apart by the end. At one point, I was ready to say Aberrance was the best film I had seen in 2023. Everything felt so fresh and alive that I was struck by how nobody ever brought this up. Sadly, the twist does take a lot of the wind out of the sails. The angle with mental illness isn’t played like you would expect (she’s “lost her mind” is never mentioned, thankfully), but it still feels like a crutch for properly establishing its leading character.
There’s also not much here to differentiate Aberrance from a standard horror film made in Hollywood. I suppose that is praise for the filmmakers, but I would have liked to see the story lean more into its Mongolian heritage. The nosy neighbor does mention following in the “Mongolian Tradition” a few times, but unlike some of the best horror films ever made, Aberrance isn’t really a critique of society or a look at racism, etc. It’s just a thriller.
While the film could be better, I can’t deny that I was thoroughly entertained by the time the credits rolled. There is something about a tight, lean, no-fat-filled thriller that gets the blood pumping. As the first film from director Baatar Batsukh (who has worked as a cinematographer for over a decade), Aberrance is a resounding success. I am very eager to see where his career will take him.