Miriam Yeung as Qing Li
Bai Ling as Mei
Tony Ka-Fai Leung as Lee
Lee Byung-Hun as
China’s Fruit Chan starts the festivities with a tasty little treat called “Dumplings” about an aging actress who goes to a poor section of town in order to try the dumplings by a loopy woman, played with little irony by Bai Ling. These dumplings are supposed to revive young and reverse aging, although their ingredients are kept a bit of a mystery. It’s a simple enough premise for a nasty little piece of work that’s most definitely not for the squeamish.
Miriam Yeung impresses as the former actress, who is slowly losing her husband to his affairs with younger women, and she figures that if she regains her youth–no matter what the cost–she’ll win him back. Bai Ling may have finally found the perfect role to let her freak flag fly with the eccentric Aunt Mei, who is a testament to her own dumplings, because she looks only thirty while claiming to be older. Wearing very tight floral pattern clothes, she cheerfully gushes about her own dumpling cookery and sings to her clients as they eat, making for a rather odd character.
It’s better to not know ahead of time what’s in Mei’s dumplings, although you can certainly use your imagination as you watch her chop up the ingredients and feel uneasy as Mrs. Li slurps them down. It’s doubtful that extreme right-wingers are going to be happy with this horrifying ditty, especially with how Chan shows quite graphically how Mei gets her ingredients. The unpleasant images are almost palatable due to the beautiful way the segment is shot by master Hong Kong cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who filmed most of Wong Kar-Wai’s movies as well as Zhang Yimou’s “Hero.” A lot can be read into Chan’s views on social class systems and the extreme measures women take to retain their beauty and youth by watching this, but eventually, it turns into a “Twilight Zone” episode complete with a moral and an ending just as creepy as the rest of it.
At least Korean director Park Chan-Wook has already found some mainstream acceptance Stateside thanks to support from Quentin Tarantino for his last film “Oldboy.” His segment “Cut” is the best of the trio, a dark comedy continuing the vengeance themes of Mr. Park’s recent films, while taking the HBO series “Extras” to its most logical and twisted extreme.
His segment begins as a bloody vampire nasty, but that turns out to be the latest movie from a hot director whose art is already imitating his life. When he arrives back home, we realize that his home is almost identical to the set we just left, looking like something out of a Tom Petty video. After the director is attacked by a home invader, he wakes up back on the set with his pianist wife tied up to a grand piano just out of reach. His mentally unbalanced kidnapper is a down on his luck former extra from the director’s films, who has decided to pull a “Saw” like lesson for the director, because no one that rich or famous should be so nice. To prove otherwise, the director is forced to kill a young girl or else his wife’s fingers will be chopped off one at a time.
It’s the perfect setup for a bit of sadistic interplay between the director and his captor that’s rather funny in a twisted sort of way. The segment is far more tense and psychological than scary, but it’s also not for the squeamish, because it gets quite gory by the end. Mr. Park offers up one of the most twisted things he’s ever done on film, as well. Like “Dumplings,” the key to this scene working is the way Mr. Park’s unique vision combines with camerawork that sweeps from one character to another, creating even more suspense as the clock ticks away, threatening another severed digit.
Takashi Miike, who paved the way for some of Japan’s sickest horror, classics like “Audition” and “Ichii the Killer,” offers a relatively tame finale that will be a letdown for anyone who enjoyed his former bloodletting. His “Box” is about a writer whose sister died when they were young girls performing as assistants in a magician’s act, which involved them squeezing into small boxes. A rivalry develops between the sisters as the magician starts favoring one over the other, leading to tragedy.
Most of this will leave you scratching your head, because it jumps back and forth from “reality” to dream, and it’s never quite clear which is which. It almost seems as if Miike has been co-opted by the ridiculous “Ring”/”Grudge” trend that has swept through Japan, with the piece using the same types of images and scares we’ve seen far too many times in those films, their sequels and remakes. If nothing else, you can appreciate this piece for its haunting beauty, but the ending comes from out of left field, like a bad episode of “Outer Limits.” It might have been smarter to move this segment earlier, rather than ending on such a low-note.
As a whole, the three short films give a fine overview of Asian horror from three masters, but it’s a shame that Miike went the mainstream route, rather than sticking with the “extreme” theme promised by the anthology’s title.
The Bottom Line: