Three… Extremes/Sam Gang Yi (2004) ***
Whoops. Turns out this is a sequel to a movie I never knew existed. Oh well. Since Three… Extremes is an anthology, and since none of the filmmakers who contributed to the original Three came back for the follow-up, I don’t feel too uncomfortable about reviewing it without reference to its predecessor. Besides, the English-language DVD release of Three bills it as 3 Extremes II, so most of the people reading this would be likely to get the relationship between this movie and its predecessor backwards, anyway, if left to their own devices. What unites Three and Three… Extremes is not continuity of story or subject matter, but rather commonality of organizing principle. Both are pan-Asiatic compilations of short subjects by directors who played significant roles in the 21st-century revitalization of commercial movie industries in the nations of the Sinosphere, and in the rise of those industries to international prominence.
Of the directors featured here, Hong Kong’s Fruit Chan hews closest to the arthouse expectations that have dominated American perceptions of foreign film in recent years. Although he got his start assisting Sammo Hung on Heart of Dragon in 1985, Fruit Chan’s biggest claim to fame is a succession of contemplative and rather gloomy-sounding movies dramatizing the social and political angst that accompanied the 1997 transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from London to Beijing. “Dumplings” is thus a major departure from his previous work, at least in terms of subject matter.
Its central figure is Lee Ching (Miriam Yeung Chin Wah), a former television actress married to a businessman (Tony Leung Ka Fai, from Ghost Lantern and Finale in Blood) a good two decades her senior. Ching, that is to say, is a trophy wife, but her trophy value has declined considerably now that she’s 33 years old and hasn’t had a TV gig in ages. Ching is pretty sure that Lee’s increasingly frequent business trips are planned at least partly with an eye toward creating opportunities to cheat on her with much younger girls, and she’s exactly right about that. A lot of women in Ching’s position would start shopping for a good plastic surgeon right about now, but Ching herself has a different strategy in mind. We’re dealing, after all, with a part of the world where folk medicine and indeed folk magic still hold powerful sway, and Ching has heard rumors that one of the city’s horribly depressing apartment towers is home to a woman called Aunt Mei, who claims to have a recipe for dumplings that can turn back the biological clock for those who eat them.
The fact that “Aunt” Mei is played by intermittently scandal-prone professional hot chick Bai Ling (whose film credits include The Crow and The Breed) suggests that she does indeed know a thing or two about maintaining one’s youthful vitality past its posted expiration date. “Dumplings” plays coy for a while regarding the active ingredient in Mei’s preservative pot-stickers, but it’s immediately obvious that they’re made with something that Ching really doesn’t want to think too hard about eating. Three… Extremes being the sort of movie that it is, it is all but inevitable that the dumplings contain some variation on the theme of human flesh, but Fruit Chan is playing for higher stakes than we’re accustomed to in Western films about purposeful people-eating. Mei’s supplier is a crooked obstetrics nurse (Wai-Man Wu) at the local hospital, who sells her the abortion clinic’s leftovers!
Evidently not all pulped fetuses are created equal when it comes to serving as the world’s ickiest fountain of youth; fresher is better, as is closer to viability. Also, male fetuses outperform female, and first conceptions far outperform subsequent ones. This matters a lot, because Ching is in a hurry. She wants to look young again now, before Lee has a chance to think too seriously about trading her in on a newer model, and like Janice Starlin in The Wasp Woman, she pushes Mei for stronger and stronger preparations when she doesn’t immediately get the results she wants. Eventually, another of Mei’s customers comes along with a problem that dovetails nicely with Ching’s. A middle-aged woman (So-Fun Wong) brings Mei her teenaged daughter, Kate (Miki Yeung, of Dating a Vampire and Fatal Contact), seeking an illegal third-trimester abortion. The child Kate is carrying would be her firstborn son if the girl carried him to term, but any potential joy at that prospect is counteracted by the fact that the baby’s father is also Kate’s father. Kate’s son is thus destined to be cursed (the gods taking an even dimmer view of incest than we mortals), giving the girl and her mother two metaphysical planes’ worth of reasons to want nothing to do with him. Cursed fetuses, or so Mei claims, are the most potent of all for Ching’s purposes, so a cursed first-conceived son scant weeks from being born is practically a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Ching likes the sound of that— enough even to force down her disgust at consuming something so closely resembling a living infant. The arrangement stops being so cozy when Kate dies of complications on her way home from Mei’s place, however…
Next up is “Cut,” by Korean director Chan-wook Park. Park is best known for a trio of crime thrillers focusing on the subject of revenge (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance), so it comes as no shock that his contribution to Three… Extremes would take up that theme as well. It’s a very weird sort of retribution that the avenger here seeks, though. We won’t ever learn the name of any character we need care about, but the central figure in “Cut” is a well known writer and director of B-movies (Byung-hun Lee). This guy’s career has covered just about all the traditional bases— horror, war, crime, lowbrow comedy, and even a musical or two— and his films have been successful enough on the whole to make him a very wealthy man. He works hard for that success, too, and has never let it go to his head. He treats his casts, his crews, and even his extras with the utmost respect and appreciation, and never asks anything of them that he wouldn’t be prepared to do himself. As a consequence, he is almost universally adored in the industry, the force of his personal goodness dispelling virtually all of the rivalry and resentment that having damn near everything go his way might be expected to generate.
Yeah, well, you’ll notice that I said “virtually all.” One night, when our hero returns home from a very long day at work shooting his latest movie (a vampire flick which frankly looks a lot more entertaining than “Cut”), he is ambushed and cold-cocked by a prowler. When the director comes to, he’s back on the film set, fastened to the soundstage wall by a sort of pulley mechanism that restricts his movement to a smallish, rectangular area. His wife (The Butterfly’s Hye-jeong Kang) is there, too, bound by an indescribable contraption of wires to the bench of a grand piano, with her fingertips superglued to the keys. Also present is the architect of all this threatening weirdness (Won-hie Lim, from Ghost Taxi), but neither the director nor his wife has any idea who he is. It’s entirely understandable that they wouldn’t, even though he and the director have worked together any number of times; the other man is an unsuccessfully aspiring actor who had served as an extra in the casts of several of the director’s films. Now the natural assumption to make at this juncture would be that the abductor hopes to extort a career break out of his prey, but the disgruntled extra has nothing nearly so sane in mind. He doesn’t want unearned professional advancement, nor is he acting out of toxic envy toward the director’s good fortune. In fact, he completely accepts that it’s just the way of the world for some men to be rich, famous, handsome, and successful, while others are destined for poverty, obscurity, ugliness, and failure. However (or so our hero’s captor contends), it is also the way of the world for those who have all the advantages in this life to be vile and despicable, while the losers of the mortal plane are righteous and virtuous— that way, the positions can justly be reversed in the afterlife, so that nobody gets either a free ride or an eternity of misery and bad luck. In other words, this director guy, by being so goddamned good and decent on top of his material and social successes, is fucking up the cosmic order of things, and the extra is pretty sure that that concentration of positive mojo is the reason why he himself is a violent, cruel, ill-tempered bastard in addition to being a luckless fuck-up. Well no more, damn it! Tonight the director is going to fix the balance, giving up his goodness by murdering the child that his foe also kidnapped— and for every ten minutes he spends procrastinating about it, his lovely, piano-playing wife is going to lose a finger…
And finally comes Takashi Miike’s “Box.” You remember Takashi Miike. He was the twisto who gave us Gozu and Audition, plus a bunch of equally weird shit I haven’t gotten around to yet. “Box” is an elliptical peek into the life of a slightly crazy woman named Kyoko (Kyoko Hasegawa), who makes her living as a writer while dwelling in what looks like either a halfway house or a minimum-security asylum. Kyoko’s problem is that she sees ghosts, or rather, that she sees in particular the terrifyingly disfigured ghost of her twin sister, Shoko (Yuu Suzuki), who died when she was about ten years old. She also suffers from recurring nightmares in which she is buried alive, naked and sealed inside a polyethylene sack, in the middle of a snow-covered field. The closest thing Kyoko has to a friend is her agent (Atsuro Watabe), who appears to have something of a crush on her despite her disturbed mental state.
None of that actually matters too much, though, for the real focus of Kyoko’s life (and of “Box” as well) is a period a decade and more in the past, when she (played as a child by Mai Suzuki) and her sister worked as contortionist ballerinas in the sideshow act of a magician who may or may not have been their father (also Atsuro Watabe). At the climax of the act, the two girls would fold themselves up inside a pair of impossibly small wooden boxes from which they would subsequently vanish, their places taken by an explosion of flowers. The sisters loved each other very much, but Kyoko was also very envious of Shoko due to the magician’s apparent preference for the latter girl. Shoko invariably received more praise and greater rewards for her performance in the show (which, to be fair, was generally noticeably better than Kyoko’s), and more importantly, Shoko got to roll out her futon beside that of their possibly surrogate father each night, while Kyoko was banished to another part of the pavilion. One night, Kyoko locked Shoko in her box while they were rehearsing, her aim being to take her twin’s place and experience, just this once, the affection and approval that were Shoko’s alone. The twins weren’t as identical as all that, however, and Kyoko’s ruse went nowhere. More importantly, there was an accident with some lantern oil before the magician could spring Shoko from her confinement, and the little girl wound up roasting alive in the box where her sister had trapped her. Naturally, these past events have considerable bearing on the present, but it isn’t quite what you’d expect. Shoko, unlike the great majority of spectral children in modern Japanese horror movies, holds no grudge against her living sister— she just wants them to be together again…
With three different writers and three different directors at work, it is only to be expected that Three… Extremes is even less cohesive than the typical horror anthology. In addition to the usual variations in quality (with “Cut” manfully stepping up to fill the dud slot), each story has its own distinct tone and narrative style, and the combination is not as harmonious as it might have been. “Dumplings,” despite its outre subject, is probably the most accessible of the segments. Its obliqueness is designed as a mechanism for dealing tastefully with something exceedingly distasteful, and its curious quietude takes a form that one often sees in Western art films, even if it is extremely rare within the horror genre. It has a bit of that “events removed from the context of their participants’ lives” quality that I associate with the kind of short fiction that gets published in The Utne Reader and The New Yorker, which again is weird for horror, but is nevertheless familiar from somewhere in Western culture. Fruit Chan’s use of implication conforms to an immediately recognizable set of expectations, too— although in marked contrast to all too many fright films that try to get by on hints alone, the suggested horror of “Dumplings” really does work. Never in a thousand years would I have guessed that watching a woman eat pot-stickers could be so disturbing.
The dignity— hell, the elegance— of “Dumplings” does “Cut” absolutely no favors; the cornball crudity of the second segment is twice as irritating with Fruit Chan’s confidently understated work so fresh in the memory. “Cut” resembles nothing so much as a parody of Saw by the makers of Crazy Lips (which is rather fascinating given how vanishingly unlikely it is that Chan-wook Park could have seen Saw in time for it to influence his contribution to Three… Extremes), and it succumbs to the time-dishonored horror comedy pitfall of being neither funny nor horrifying. That’s a shame not just because it breaks the mood that Fruit Chan established so masterfully with “Dumplings” (and which “Box” takes up again in its own, much weirder fashion afterwards), but also because I really do like the uniquely strange grievance that motivates the villain. One of the things that draws me to foreign films is the way they sometimes call attention to my unspoken cultural assumptions by presenting things that don’t begin to make sense unless I discard them, and the mad extra’s conviction that the director is bogarting his share of the universe’s spiritual bounty is a fine example of the phenomenon. I would have liked to see it either played straighter or handled with a subtler comedic touch.
Luckily, Takashi Miike gets Three… Extremes back on track. As with everything of his that I’ve watched, I came away from “Box” a little unsure of what I just saw, but discomfited by it nonetheless. “Box” shares with Audition a fractured approach to the passage of time and an emphasis on dreams and fantasies that combine to keep the viewer off balance regarding when— or indeed whether— any given scene is really supposed to be happening. A lot of stuff is never fully explained (most notably the true nature of the magician’s relationship to Kyoko and Shoko), and the fact that the whole piece is presented from the perspective of a mentally disturbed character demands that we question everything that Miike shows us. For instance, is the dual casting of Atsuro Watabe as both the magician and Kyoko’s agent meant to reflect a connection in the “real” world of the film, or does it merely tell us something about how Kyoko sees the latter man? We don’t know, and not knowing that opens “Box” up to interpretation as at least three or four completely different stories, including a couple that would take place almost entirely inside Kyoko’s head. For that reason, I would identify “Box” as by far the most difficult of the segments in Three… Extremes, but also by far the most rewarding. Miike gives a great Lynchian mind-fuck if that’s what you’re in the mood for, and the short running time of “Box” forces him to do so much more concisely than he sometimes manages in his full-length films.