Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Asian Horror Week: Three... Extremes (2004, China, South Korea, Japan)

Three Asian directors take a stab at the anthology subgenre with three very different short films that make up Three... Extremes. Fruit Chan from Hong Kong helms "Dumplings," Park Chan-wook from South Korea directs "Cut," and the awesome Takashi Miike from Japan gives us "Box."

In "Dumplings, a once famous actress goes to see a woman named Aunt Mei, whose special dumplings are known for their anti-aging properties - if you can overlook the secret ingredient.

All of the films in Three... Extremes seem to have a grotesque nature surrounding them, and this one is quite possibly the most grotesque. I thought the big mystery about this short would what was actually in the dumplings, but it's not. They tell you fairly soon on what Aunt Mei is using to make herself and other women look younger, and if you really think about it for a minute you can probably figure it out for yourself. I had a pretty good idea about it myself before it was revealed and was quite grossed out to find out that I was right. But if you don't want to know, go away because I just can't ignore it.

I say "Dumplings" is the most grotesque, but the one thing it has in common with another of the stories - "Cut" - is that it is almost a black comedy. Mrs. Li is in a failing relationship with both her husband and her career. She goes to see Aunt Mei knowing what is in those dumplings but she is desperate to regain her youth and make her husband interested in her again. Li at first seems reluctant to partake in the consumption of ABORTED FETUSES (yup, that's the special recipe) yet she still does it, and comes back several times - even demanding that Aunt Mei provide her with more "potent" goods to make them work faster.

This is where a bit of the black comedy comes in. The scenes where Li is eating the dumplings are morbidly funny to me with the way Aunt Mei casually talks about the best way to cook the fetuses, and also the looks on Li's face and the nasty crunching noises as she chews. Li herself becomes the most grotesque character of the bunch, especially in her final scenes. Yuuuuuuuuck.

There's some nice bloody baby gore, so women watching this movie, beware! Not one but two bloody abortion scenes are extremely disturbing and made me cross my legs for the duration of the film. You might not want to eat much after watching "Dumplings," and even if you are offended by what you see, it's surely not something you'll forget any time soon.

"Cut" was by far my favorite in this anthology. It's about a Director (I use caps because that's how I'll be referring to him) and his Wife who are taken hostage by a crazed Extra. If Director doesn't do what Extra says, Extra will cut off one of Wife's fingers every minutes (she's a pianist). The film has very surreal imagery. The hostages are held on the set of Director's latest movie, which strangely looks like the living room of his own home, and the set up that Extra puts Wife in is way past bizarre looking. Director is attached around the waist by a really long band that goes through one wall of the set and out and around and up the ceiling - it's just odd. The set itself is a huge open room with blue walls, gold accents, and a black and white tiled floor. It's calming and pretty and looks like it belongs on a episode of Friends, not a horror story. It's well lit and a very unsettling atmosphere.

The comedy is much more apparent in this short and again it is more of a black humor, although there is a song and dance number. Don't get too psyched, it's just Extra going a little crazy. His whole beef with Director is your basic jealousy - Director has a pretty wife, successful career, nice house and Extra has nothing, is a drunk, and beats his wife and son. Extra keeps trying to make Director corrupt himself by admitting any kind of past bad deed that will convince Extra that Director is not the Mister Perfect he thinks he is. In the end, Extra wants Director to commit the ultimate atrocity to save his wife.

I absolutely loved the way "Cut" was shot. It starts off with a spectacular tracking shot that goes around the actors in the room, then speeds out behind them, going through the handle of a pitcher, and around and through other objects. There's also a lot of tight close-up shots and zooms - something that is not used a lot in film anymore, and frankly I think it should be.

At times "Cut" feels like any other cat-and-mouse game between good guy and bad guy, but the acting and set pieces, and also some plot twists along the way, make it the most entertaining short in Three... Extremes. There's some confusion at the end with Director's final actions but don't let it get you down. You'll have way more time to be confused at the last segment.

The final film, "Box," concerns a writer haunted by the memory of her sister. Without shame, I put on my dunce cap over this movie. I have no fucking clue what is going on. Looking up some interpretations, I see that many people have many different ideas as to just what the film is trying to explore. There doesn't seem to be an solid explanation, even from the director himself, so maybe I should just stick to the technical specs.

"Box" is basically your typical Miike - a convoluted mess of a fucking confusing plot projected by beautiful imagery. The main character Kyoko has a recurring dream somebody burying her alive inside a tiny box, under a ground blanketed by fresh snow. She also has flashbacks to her life as a child in the circus, performing magic tricks with her twin sister. The deep reds and golds of these scenes are a stark contrast cold blues and whites in the scenes where Kyoko is older. Kyoko and her sister Shoko also did synchronized gymnastics moves in their act together, which at times looks very freaky.

As I said, this short can be and has been interpreted to mean several different things to different people. The events and clues presented seem to mean an underlying theme of guilt and remorse to one person, while another person sees jealousy and repressed feelings from sexual molestation. My mind was only a jumble of question marks by the time the credits roll, so I don't feel at all qualified to give an interpretation at this point - at least not until I've seen it about 20 more times to help me understand it.

I'm not demanding an artist to give us a cut and dry explanation of just what the hell he's trying to say in his work, but sometimes a story as open-ended and ambiguous as this is downright frustrating - and I don't know about you, but when I'm frustrated, I'm a six-year-old trying to read War and Peace. It sucks. In that sense, "Box" was a big downer after the fun and excitement of "Dumplings" and "Cut" and didn't really seem to fit into this anthology. It's still a great piece of art from a great director and I continually applaud Miike for the kind of shit he thinks up. I don't want anyone fucking with my mind but you, Miike.


  1. ah, an absolutely wonderful and brilliantly disturbing work of art!

  2. This may be the single greatest anthology film ever made, excellent entries!

  3. New reader chimin' in, if I may:

    Great review! "Dumplings" disturbed the hell outta me . . .something that very, very rarely happens to this jaded old horror fan these days.


  4. you know you didn't have to drop the f bomb so much for "box" i deem that very unprofessional .-.

  5. If I really was a professional, that is a "professional writer," I wouldn't drop the f bomb at all. But I'm not. It's a blog.