Editor’s Note: This review of ABERRANCE is spoiler-free

What happens when you go to the woods for a rest in a movie? Usually, whatever it is, it’s not good. Such is the case with ABERRANCE, the first full-length film by Mongolian filmmaker Baatar Batsukh and co-written by Batsukh, Erdene Orosoo, and Byambasuren Ganbat. Batsukh also serves as the film’s cinematographer.

I’ll be honest. I was stoked to see what kind of film Mongolian filmmakers could produce because I think every country should be part of the worldwide film party, and I wanted to know more about them culturally. I classify ABERRANCE as more of a thriller than an actual horror film. It concentrates on the plight of Selenge (Selenge Chadraabal) and her husband, Erkhmee (Erkhembayar Ganbat), and is focused on the familiar theme of a woman who may or may not be ill in some way, but is under the close supervision of her husband. It is suggested that the husband may be abusive, and the story leads the viewer one way. The story’s first half is a little confusing, but that is somewhat intentional. In the third act, more is revealed and the film goes in a new direction. I won’t tell you where it goes from there. Just be patient with the first half.

At one point in the woods, the sky turns red around the character Selenge which is a pleasing choice visually. I think they may have used the idea in a “Parts Unknown episode” to place the camera on a rig attached to the actor themselves, giving it a peculiar bobbing motion with a close-up of the actor’s faces as the POV. In classic exploitation style, the film also manages to sneak in a voyeuristic nude scene. Why? Well, that’s where you understand that a particular character isn’t a good person after their introduction, so there is a reason for it. I’m serious when I say that Batuskh seems to be playing with different ideas with shots and visual effects. The film’s post-credit sequence is well done, and the film is dedicated to Darren Aronofsky. The musical score by Ochsuren Davaasuren and Jargal Oyunerdene is good and starts with some nicely discordant piano in a minor key.

The film was interesting in a good way, particularly in its visual aesthetics, and overall had some similarities, thematically, with the Korean film series, The Witch. The film’s strengths are in its willingness to experiment with the visual style and the cast’s performances. All cast members, namely Erkhembayar Ganbat, Selenge Chadraabal, Yalalt Namsrai, Oyundary Jamsranjav, Sukhee Ariunbyamba, Bayarsanaa Batchuluun, and Badamtsetseg Batmunkh, have engaging faces and personalities and have the willingness to go for it.

The performance by Selenge Chadraabal, in particular, is quite good. She’s vulnerable, and her character seems miserable and confused when called upon to be and has the capacity for genuine delight. Chadraabal, Erkhembayar Ganbat, and Sukhee Ariunbyamba as the nosy neighbor are all watchable. Special shout out to Ariunbyamba. He does a good job, too, and has an all-too-ready smile and charismatic sleaze. Ganbat is a little more sympathetic than I would expect from this kind of character, and I thought it was an engaging choice on the part of the actor.

Overall, ABERRANCE is a notable film to start exploring Mongolian cinema, and it makes me want to see what else their cinema can come up with. The film is a success in my book.

ABERRANCE had its North American premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. Make sure to read our SXSW coverage here.

Dolores Quintana
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