Two years ago “Three” was released as a single movie, an anthology composed of three different stories made by three directors from three countries. (Hence the title, if you were wondering.) “Three…Extremes” once again picks up the mantle in the name of cash and, one hopes, a little bit of creativity. The first of the three stories to be released is “Dumplings”, made by Hong Kong’s Fruit Chan. (Prolific shockmeister Takeshi Miike (“One Missed Call”) of Japan will release “Box” and South Korea’s “it” director of the moment Chan-wook Park (“Old Boy”) will release “Cut” at future dates.)
Helping Chan unleash the first of the trilogy at moviegoers is cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who has done some of the most visually brilliant films from Asia in the last 5 years (including Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” and frequent collaborator Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood for Love” and the upcoming “2046″). “Dumplings” is about a fallen starlet played by Miriam Yeung (“Anna in Kung-fu Land”) who seeks help to reclaim her youth as well as her philandering husband (Tony Leung). Yeung’s Ching finds salvation in Aunt Mei (Bai Ling), who despite the moniker is actually quite a fetching woman in her ’30s (or so it seems) who makes frequent trips back to China where she collects the main ingredient in her secret recipe for restoring woman’s youth.
The secret to Aunt Mei’s “secret recipe” is her dumplings, which are made from the remains of aborted fetuses. Not to worry, as this plot point is quickly exposed, even if Ching refuses to accept it until much later. “Dumplings” is a cold, voyeuristic, and unsettling film, which seems to be the intention. The film, written by Lillian Lee, never goes out of its way to make us comfortable with its characters. Our distance to these three people is helped by the film’s use of faraway shots and erratic scene framing. Each character is zeroed in on his or her own wants and needs, and it just so happens that those needs are intersecting.
As a way to forcibly make the audience keeps its distance from the characters, Chan and Doyle frames much of the film from slanted or uneven angles. Characters rarely stand firmly in the center of the mise-en-scene, and at times they wander so completely off frame that we become disoriented. As filmgoers, we are used to seeing people in focus and in frame, so it feels strange when the camera refuses to adjust to character movements. Of course the momentary confusion subsides, allowing us to appreciate the stylistic nature of “Dumplings”. To be sure, it’s a fabulously stylish film, from the bright colors of Aunt Mei’s tight (oh so tight!) hot pants to Ching’s preference of solid colors.
More social satire than horror film, “Dumplings” makes for an effective first movie in the planned 3-film anthology. I wouldn’t be surprised if Chan’s film proved to be the best of the three, as Peter Chan’s own “Going Home” proved to be the best of the first “Three”. Like that other Chan’s movie, there is an offbeat sensibility to “Dumplings”. The narrative is never completely coherent, although it’s obvious what is happening. Towards the end, the film takes some liberties, skipping crucial plot points and failing to follow up on others. Having invested in the film up to this point, it all seems just a bit too much of a cheat to deny us some measure of resolution.
Of course the off-kilter story would never have worked without a good cast. Chan has picked brilliantly in Bai Ling, who has been doing recent big-budget Hollywood films in America since fleeing her native China, and was recently seen in the Jude Law sci-fi actioner “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”. Ling is almost unrecognizable here, with her boundless energy and enthusiasm for her dumplings. Although you’re pretty sure you’re not supposed to like her, you can’t help but feel a bit of guilt because you just can’t help yourself. Even when she’s aborting a fetus before our eyes, Ling’s Aunt Mei does it with such good humor that for a moment — just a moment — you almost mistake her enthusiasm for compassion.
As the lead, Miriam Yeung, who is actually only 30 in real life, really does look like a fading ex-starlet, which is rather amazing considering all the pointless romantic comedy films one usually associates her with. It’s not even as if Chan and company covered her in prosthetic make-up. As far as I can tell, the only change Yeung’s character goes through is Ching’s sudden bursts of self-confidence. Do the dumplings actually make a difference, or is it a placebo effect? When it comes to Aunt Mei’s own age, this question seems to have a readily obvious answer, but it’s not so clear in Ching’s case. Like much of “Dumplings”, rather the dumplings actually work is open to interpretation.
As the first of a planned 3-movie rollout, the producers of “Three…Extremes” could do worst than Fruit Chan’s “Dumplings”. At once alien yet familiar, and uncomfortable yet inviting, “Dumplings” is one of those movies you know you shouldn’t like, but you can’t help yourself. It’s a lot like Aunt Mei that way. You know you shouldn’t approve of what she’s doing, but it’s hard to look away when she’s walking around in tight hot pants and always seems to be playing with her bountiful cleavage.
Fruit Chan (director) / Lillian Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Tony Leung …. Lee
Miriam Yeung …. Ching
Ling Bai …. Aunt Mei