Three: Extremes (2004) Movie Review

The release of the Asian horror anthology “Three…Extremes” on DVD comes as a bit of a dilemma to international moviegoers who had already seen one of the three stories, Fruit Chan’s “Dumplings”, when it was released earlier in full-length version. As with the original “Three” two years ago, the sequel consists of three horror tales from three different countries directed by three noted men. (As of right now, all six directors have been men. If there is a third anthology (and really, why wouldn’t there be, considering the success of the last two?), it would be interesting to see a horror tale from a female’s point of view.

“Extremes” starts the fun with “Box”, directed by the prolific Takashi Miike (and let’s face it, it’s impossible to write Miike’s name without tagging it with the word “prolific”), who weaves a slow, contemplative story about an isolated female writer who is having dreams of being buried alive. We come to learn that the woman, Kyoko (Kyoko Hasegawa), once had a twin sister, and as young girls the two were acts in their father’s traveling circus. In a case of sibling rivalry gone terribly wrong, Kyoko locks her sister in the trunk that they use as part of their act, resulting in the sister’s death. Now, years later and all grown up, Kyoko is being visited by what seems to be a ghost. Is her sister coming back for revenge?

Representing Hong Kong (who, along with the South Korean delegation, returns from the original “Three” — with Thailand being absent this go-round in favor of Miike’s Japan), is Fruit Chan, whose “Dumplings” I had already reviewed here. Starring Miriam Yeung as an aging starlet trying desperately to hold onto her youth as well as her husband, the story is shot by famed cinematographer Christopher Doyle (“2046”). The 40-minute version available in this anthology tells the same tale except for the ending. Here, the alternative ending offers up a different fate for Yeung’s character, and marks the only reason not to skip this section completely if you’ve already seen Chan’s movie in full-length form.

The last segment, “Cut”, is written and directed by “It” director Chan-wook Park, whose “Oldboy” is one of the most hyped and critically acclaimed films in a long while. “Cut” is the story of a hotshot film director (Byung-hun Lee, “Joint Security Area”) who comes home only to get knocked out. He wakes up to find his wife strung up by wires and her fingers super glued to a piano, while he has a rope tied around his waist to limit his movements. The culprit is an actor, a faceless movie extra, who has gotten it into his head that the director has had it too good for too long and needs to be taught a lesson. A poor, self-pitying piece of scum who wants to exact revenge on the handsome and talented director because his own life has been filled with misery, the villain is cruel for the sake of being cruel, even offering the director an ultimatum: kill an innocent child, or watch the villain chop off his wife’s fingers one by one.

Of the three, Fruit Chan’s “Dumplings” feels the most rounded, an abstract conclusion that is the direct result of this reviewer having seen the 90-minute version, something “Cut” and “Box” can’t hope to achieve due to their edited down 40-minute running time. If I had only seen the 40-minute segments of each film, I would probably pick Miike’s “Box” as the best film of the lot. Not only is it the most accomplished in terms of visuals and pure style, but also because lead actress Kyoko Hasegawa is smoldering, bringing barely restrained sexuality to a story that doesn’t have a single hint of nudity.

Of the three, Chan-wook Park’s “Cut” fares the worst, at least by comparison and simply on the basis that there doesn’t seem to be that much to the story beyond the surface. Granted, if one was intent on digging deeper, I suppose there’s something to be said about the complex motivations of the pathetic villain played by Wong-hie Lim (“This is Law”), a man who has no interest at all in justifying his actions. In the film’s most humorous moments, Lim’s character forces Lee’s director to come up with one sin that proves he (the director) isn’t the perfect, good man the villain thinks he is. Byung-hun Lee’s strained face, as he tries mightily to come up with a fault, is worth a laugh. Which is one of the segment’s problems — it’s sometimes too funny to be as intense as it should be.

But it’s Miike’s “Box” that stays with you, if just for the sensual turn by Kyoko Hasegawa, who in an amazing scene radiates raw sexual energy by just taking off her coat. Much of “Box” is infused with hints of sex and violence, even though neither ever shows up in any gratuitous quantity. In a lot of ways, “Box” is in contrast to Miike’s earlier works, and the director is impossibly restrained, forced to rely on story and a captivating leading lady to lure the audience in rather than throw buckets of blood and ejaculation at the screen as Miike is sometimes wont to do.

Although the release of Fruit Chan’s “Dumplings” on DVD before the “Extremes” anthology brings forth some problems (one of which is that you’re basically paying for two DVDs to see the same 3 stories when you could have just bought one and seen the same 3 stories), it also introduces a most intriguing notion. That is, if Chan’s “Dumplings” was a better movie as a 90-minute version, how much better could Miike’s “Box” and Park’s “Cut” be with an additional 50 minutes tacked onto each? In the case of “Cut”, there might be a problem, as the film is essentially about four people trapped in one location, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of tangents for the story to go in order to fill up the extra time. On the other hand, “Box” is more traditional in a narrative sense, and it would be interesting to see an elongated version of Kyoto’s battles with her dreams and her sense of what is real and what are nightmares.

As an anthology, “Three…Extremes” is a lot stronger than the original, with all three segments this time around able to hold their own. The original was terribly disjointed, with a terrible Thai segment, a derivative Korean segment, and a spectacular Hong Kong effort that managed to salvage the film. “Extremes” does one better, with Miike’s “Box” coming across as more contemplative, Chan’s “Dumplings” giving off that kooky vibe, and Park’s “Cut” going for insane hysteria. Combined, these three separate little movies make for a highly entertaining whole movie.

Fruit Chan, Takashi Miike, Chan-wook Park (director)
CAST: Byung-hun Lee, Hye-jeong Kang, Jung-ah Yum, Ling Bai, Kyoko Hasegawa, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Won-hie Lim, Atsuro Watabe, Miriam Yeung Chin Wah

Buy Three: Extremes on DVD