group of acclaimed creators steps outside the box
for Dumplings: Three...Extremes. A ninety-minute
version of director Fruit Chan's segment of the horror
omnibus Three...Extremes (which also happens
to be the sort-of sequel to 2002's award-winning horror
anthology Three), Dumplings comes courtesy
of a variety of unexpected creators. Based on a novella
from Lillian Lee (Farewell, My Concubine),
and produced by Peter Chan, the film stars the unlikely
pair of box office queen Miriam Yeung and Hollywood
actress Bai Ling. It also nixes the supernatural creepiness
normally associated with the genre and delivers a
haunting and even realistic glimpse at human horrors.
As such, it runs the risk of being viewed as pedestrian,
especially since Fruit Chan doesn't go way over-the-top
ALA Herman Yau of The Untold Story.
Regardless, this is excellent, though questionably
Miriam Yeung dons subtle
makeup and an unflattering old lady hairstyle to play
Ching, a middle-aged former TV star whose best years
are far behind her. When we first meet her, she's
just shown up at the apartment of Mei (Bai
Ling), a mysterious woman who's alluring in a trashy/sexy
way. Immediately, Mei knows that Ching is here to
sample her renowned and extremely expensive dumplings.
Featuring a glutinous, semitransparent outer skin
and filling that's alarmingly pinkish in hue, the
dumplings are renowned not necessarily for their taste,
but for their reputed anti-aging properties. More
to the point, the dumplings are supposed to make a
middle-aged woman with sagging skin into a firm-skinned
goddess bursting with sexually-appealing youth. Or
so Mei claims.
Ching's reason for ingesting
the dumplings is no mystery, though. She's
desperate to regain the affection of her husband Mr.
Lee (Tony Leung Ka-Fai sporting a white-haired dye
job), who's taken to consorting with his masseuse,
among other nubile young lasses. Ching longs for him
to look at her again, not necessarily because she
loves him, but because his disinterest hurts her vanity.
She's no longer the charming, fresh-faced youth who
charmed audiences on television (a kind of pseudo-irony
since Miriam Yeung is still charming, fresh-faced
and young), and simply wants to regain the feeling
and outward luster of being physically young and beautiful.
But, as anyone who's seen a "mystery meat"
movie can tell you, there's a price. However, in this
case, Ching may be all too willing to absorb the consequences.
The identity of Mei's
mystery meat is no big surprise. It's actually divulged
fairly early in Dumplings, and when the audience
is explicitly told, only the most inattentive or unskilled
at viewing comprehension will be shocked. Even more,
Ching knows from frame one exactly what she's ingesting,
which only serves to make her willingness to eat the
dumplings even more disturbing. Fruit Chan gives the
film slow, deliberate style that reveals with astonishing
indifference. Instead of making his revelations the
stuff of shock horror, the slow realization of what's
in there becomes an absorbing and intriguing experience.
It's not what's in there that horrifies, but the mundane
and deliberate process of obtaining the materials
and preparing the dumplings is given exacting and
disturbing detail. The audience is given a ringside
view as Mei hunts down her ingredients and prepares
them for consumption. The sequences are alternately
appetizing and horrifying. It sure looks like she's
creating something tasty, but as soon as you figure
out what's in there, your stomach may not not forgive
you for thinking so.
Ching experiences the
same mixed emotions as the audience, as her own disgust
at eating the dumplings is initially obvious. But
since she's so intent on reaping their benefits, she
steels herself to eat them. What's more, she develops
a morbid curiosity at the whole process of making
these special dumplings, a trait that leads her to
shock, then acceptance, and ultimately an unwavering
desire. The need for Ching to feel young is developed
in her quiet attentiveness, and as she deliberately
slurps down each dumpling, the camera luxuriously
floats over her face, neck, and hands, as if we're
supposed to see them working their magic. Miriam Yeung
brings a quiet and utterly believable emotion to her
middle-aged character, and when the stuff starts working,
she seemingly starts to glow onscreen. Miriam Yeung's
work here is head-turning and miles away from Love
Undercover's goddess of silly, and she's matched
by Bai Ling's brassy, sexy turn as the amoral Mei.
Unfortunately, Mei's character is more of a showpiece
than an actual living, breathing person, but Bai Ling
brings enough animation to her to make her seem real.
Well, as real as a near-immortal woman could possibly
have some rather noticeable debits. Fruit Chan's hands-off
realism could be undermined by the film's fantasy
aspect, and the journey taken doesn't result in anything
concrete or enormously defining. Unlike what's dispensed
on the DVD cover blurb, there is no "price"
to pay for eating Mei's dumplings. That is, aside
from possibly losing one's soul, though not having
a soul in the first place seems to be a prerequisite
for chowing down on Mei's culinary delights. A person
doesn't seem to change as a result of eating the dumplings.
Rather, choosing to eat them reveals the ugly vanity
inherent in the human desire to remain young and beautiful.
Wanting to stay as you are makes sense, but to go
to such extremes to do it, you have to be one seriously
disturbed individual. And apparently, that's what
all these characters are: ugly and seriously disturbed.
Since Fruit Chan chooses
not to go the over-the-top route, and instead handles
matters in a quietly revealing fashion, some people
might see Dumplings as boring stuff not worthy
of its inherently alarming subject matter. However,
the lack of "Hey, this is screwed up!" astonishment
might also be the film's greatest strength. Instead
of a showy journey into madness and human degradation,
we get a disturbing and transfixing revelation of
ugliness via the pursuit of beauty. This juxtaposition
of the beautiful and disgusting is best demonstrated
by Christopher Doyle's fantastic cinematography, and
is echoed in the glowing radiance of Miriam Yeung's
flawless skin. Everything about Dumplings is
beautiful and almost otherworldly in presentation,
from Mei's dumplings to Ching's dresses to the very
color on the walls of Mei's apartment. But beneath
it allor maybe even on the other side of the
wallthere's something sick, ugly, and just plain
wrong, even if it's never explicitly said. That silent,
undefined juxtaposition could mean snores for some
people, and lovers of Hong Kong Cinema's Category
III glory days might find this film tame by comparison.
But for discerning audiences who enjoy a film that
slowly but surely crawls beneath your skin, Dumplings could be oddly exhilarating, coldly fascinating, and
yet utterly affecting stuff. (Kozo 2004)