SXSW 2023 Review: ABERRANCE, A Bold Debut Thriller From Mongolian Director Baatar Batsukh
You can’t really trust anyone, including your narrators, in the twisty new Mongolian thriller Aberrance, making its international debut at this year’s SXSW. Written, directed, and shot by Baatar Batsukh, Aberrance is a visually dynamic, at times perplexing film that will keep the audience guessing from the first frame to the last. Propelled by Batsukh’s innovative and aggressive camera work along with a trio of very committed lead performances, Aberrance is definitely the work of a talented first-timer, and signals the arrival of a filmmaker we should all keep an eye on.
Erkhme (Erkhembayar Ganbat) and Selenge (Selenge Chadraabal) are a couple in need of some time away. They escape the city for a respite in a rural country home, something is wrong, but we don’t know exactly what. We observe that Erkhme seems at first to be a domineering husband, barking orders at his wife, forcing her to take pills, at times even literally shoving them into her mouth. Selenge resists, as one does when being forced to medicate against one’s will, but soon the perspective shifts to suggest that perhaps Erkhme does have her best interest in mind, but it’s all very murky.
Upon arriving at their home away, they are met by a gregarious neighbor (Sukhee Ariunbyamba) who seems a little to interested in the curious goings-on next door. Erkhme shoos the neighbor away, which only draws more interest, eventually shifting from curiosity to obsession. What’s happening with this family? Is Erkhme actually abusive? Is Selenge actually ill? Is the neighbor actually dangerous? Batsukh’s film gives us far more questions than answers, and as the film wears on, the waters muddy.
Aberrance is a film of deception. Batsukh’s screenplay is deliberately manipulative of the audience – as any good thriller is – but in this case it makes me wonder if he really had a firm enough grasp of the story to convey what he wanted. At a blessed seventy-five minutes, the film screams along and a breakneck pace, which is something we love to see, but that pace leaves little time for clarification. Is everyone the villain? Is no one? A final reel reveal raises even more question, eventually leaving the audience dizzy with confusion by the time the credits – which feature an all-timer of a dedication – roll.
There is no doubt that Batsukh is incredibly creative visually. While the screenplay is shaky, the camera work is blindingly good. Having invented his own rigs and never missing a chance to throw a new visual trick at the audience, Batsukh is clearly having fun throwing everything he’s got at the screen. It’s the curse and the blessing of first-time directors, the urge to put every idea you’ve ever had on screen, and in this case, it allows the audience to get swept up in the visuals when the story seems to careen out of his control.
Thankfully, at a very basic level, he’s got the support of three actors doing top notch work. Erkhembayar, Selenge, and Sukhee all turn in incredible performances, and since about eighty percent of the film focuses on these three characters, it definitely alleviates some of the weaknesses of the narrative. Erkhembayar exudes a very primal authority over the film, while it exhibits outwardly as domination of his wife, in a way it’s also protective. Selenge’s vulnerability allows the audience a kind of surrogate, but only for a while until she, too, begins to exhibit signs that perhaps she’s not the victim she presents at first. The neighbor Sukhee, is another story altogether, and one best left to the discovery of the audience as his peeping transforms into something entirely different and unhinged by the third act that provides a lot of the film’s energy as things come to a head.
Though incredibly messy in terms of narrative – by design, I should add – Aberrance is nevertheless a fascinating and riveting first feature from Baatar Batsukh. Explosively creative visuals, dedicated and deceptive characters, and blindingly paced from the opening sequence all the way through to a truly WTF ending, this is definitely a film that will gain a following for its director as people start to see it. Even though I’ll admit I didn’t completely know what was going on by the end, I’m ready to jump right back in and try it again so see if the puzzle makes more sense on a second run, and if that’s not an indicator of a film that’s worth my time, I don’t know what is.
- Baatar Batsukh
- Baatar Batsukh
- Trevor Doyle
- Byambasuren Ganbat
- Sukhee Ariunbyamba
- Bayarsanaa Batchuluun
- Badamtsetseg Batmunkh