Three... Extremes: Dumplings (2004)
Directed by: Fruit Chan
Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2005:
So after the initiated pan-Asian project Three, Applause Pictures (headlined by Peter Chan) gathered up an even hotter group of Asian directors to deliver a trio of horror stories within the feature film format. The selections were none others than Japan's Takashi Miike (Ichi The Killer), Hong Kong's Fruit Chan (Made In Hong Kong) and South Korea's Park Chan-Wook (Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance). With the first Three, despite talent involved, it was glaringly obvious that Peter Chan's Going Home was the most accomplished but since the talent level is so amped this time around, it's really Hong Kong's otherwise indie filmmaker Fruit Chan who is the outsider here. It's his contribution Dumplings that we're focusing on in this review, both the 37 minute short and the 91 minute feature edit available as a separate release (1*).
Dumplings (37 minutes)
Li (Miriam Yeung - Dry Wood Fierce Fire, Love Undercover) is a former TV-actress on the brink of turning older than she wants to admit. She enlists the services of Mainland woman Mei (Bai Ling - Anna And The King), called Aunt by her surroundings, as she is rumored to have a miracle cure that can retain youth. That miracle cure is the age old Chinese tradition of making dumplings, with the special ingredient of fetuses...
Based on screenwriters Lilian Lee's (Rouge) own novel and featuring another reunion of a crackin' behind the camera team consisting of cinematographer Christopher Doyle, production designer Hai Chung Man and costumer designer Dora Ng, Fruit Chan makes his entrance in something akin to the big league in disgusting but ultimately intriguing fashion. Chan firstly lives up the the theme of memories that has been running through Three even since its conception. With Dumplings it's youth-remembrance and Lilian Lee at the same times makes a current, true comment about the strife for perfection and youth, embodied in the most extremes of ways in and outside the movie-world. If you weren't turned off by dumplings after Herman Yau's The Untold Story, Fruit Chan and company surely have sealed anyone's decision after only 37 minutes.
It's so pleasing to watch Dumplings in many ways believe it or not though. Main one being the fact that it's very much feels like a Fruit Chan film, with suitable polish. The majority of the setting is in a run down apartment block, captured with a naturalistic but suitably gritty feel by ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle (also DOP on Going Home), adding more honed fluidity and oddly disgusting but beautiful composed images very much worthwhile and benefiting for Chan's storytelling. Hai Chung Man's production design, highlighted by the alluring sight of the cooked dumplings gets the full attention it deserves by Chan and Doyle also. You have quite a feast of gory images but Chan easily makes the viewer sick by just having characters talk of the cooking methods and also through Kinson Tsang's brilliant sound design.
And yet it is a short film that finds time for character and a message, even if Chan needs set character traits in stone right out of the gate. Miriam Yeung's Li not only has a serviceable arc for the short running time but it's a fitting tribute to Chan's skills to quickly and confidently set up her internal worry and conflict about losing her appeal, having once been hot TV property and in her husband's eyes (a grey haired Tony Leung Ka-Fai). Yeung confidently throws herself at the mercy of Chan, having little sympathy as a character as she can't accept life's evolution and she also escapes her comedy image easily. Which is one of the main concerns when any established actor or actress takes an odd genre leap. Bai Ling steals the show though with a seriously whacked out and also funny performance as Aunt Mei, apparently a very successful experiment of the brand of dumplings at hand here. Lilian Lee probably provided a simple note or two to Bai Ling; be an eccentric old lady in sexy, youth form, treating her chosen lifeline as an everyday business. Bai Ling lives up to that thoroughly in a wonderfully, quirky little act.
Again there's normally not much that can be said in 37 minutes but Fruit Chan pulls off a lot, including creating a thoroughly disgusting tale of a kind of greed in a main character that won't accept life slipping away from her. With his final iconic shots of Miriam Yeung, Fruit Chan exits, having created a questionably compelling short due to content but it's a entertaining one that sees Chan take a further important step up stylistically from his independent background (Hollywood Hong Kong started that climb). However, he's not fallen victim to commercialism. You simply aren't doing that when you're gleefully shooting a story about fetuses being used to make dumplings. Anybody hungry yet?
Dumplings (91 minutes)
But there's more...
Released theatrically around the same as Three... Extremes in Hong Kong, once again it's the only contribution to the anthology that has had an extended version. However there is such a wealth of new material at hand here compared to Going Home that Dumplings in some respects is very much a different and better movie. Within the approximately 54 minutes of added material there is some notable additions worth discussing but we won't go into spoiler territory as such.
As for screenwriters Lilian Lee's added playground, there are notable extensions of her comments towards today's beauty obsessed world (in one scene Mei talks about the content on commercial products being all lies) and the divulging of the usage of fetuses in Chinese history but really the biggest thematic exploration continues in Miriam Yeung's Li as she has a larger amount of time to build up the desperation for youth compared to the 37 minute edit. In many respects Dumplings becomes much more of a darker, twisted story with less of the twisted fun. But it's not a negative towards director Fruit Chan as he also clearly relishes the playing field along with crew such as Christopher Doyle (more odd and stomach churning shots for him) and Dora Ng (the new opening is an immediate showcase for the slightly quirky but sexy wardrobe choices for Bai Ling). Basically, a key point is that the narrative opens up the opportunity to be fuller and it is on a few key points.
Firstly there is more interaction outside of the main apartment between Li and Mei, going so far that Mei is allowed to visit the home of Li's that is currently under renovation. All at the same time as she's dealing with the knowledge of her husband's love affair with masseuse Connie (Meme). As this is more pronounced and a further catalyst for Li's craving for youth, it also means Tony Leung Ka-Fai is upgraded from special appearance to full on supporting role (and it means extended sex scenes and a brand new one!). A sleaze and full on asshole, Leung's marvelous presence is one of THE entertaining factors in this Dumplings. Early on we're even treated to the gruesome sight of him actually eating bird eggs in order to preserve his health and youth! It seems wife AND husband are obsessed in differently visible ways.
Talking Bai Ling's Mei again, she is given a more extensive background as it's explained she was a doctor in China at one point. Also she comes off as much more devious in this version, something highlighted within Three... Extremes but not as much. She contains a larger sexiness in combination with her eccentric nature and with that obviously enters more of a chilling character to boot. More Bai Ling is not a bad thing by any means. The same goes for Miriam Yeung who impresses even more when not given such a fast development. Best scenes being where she really relishes the positive effects the fetus-dumplings has on her. Finally of note is that there exist editorial decisions where some events are shifted around and we're also given a alternate conclusion for Miriam Yeung's character that doesn't really change an overall meaning but connects more to interactions with a larger part of the character gallery in this edit. I can also swear that Kinson Tsang's sound design is amped to new disgusting levels!
So lots and lots more there is in Dumplings, including more eating, but Fruit Chan maintains great interest throughout for reasons already clear in the 37 minute version. Watching essentially the same story stretched out by almost an hour makes the film slower in pace if you make it a double bill but in actuality, Dumplings is far more better realized at feature length, expanding the disgusting premise to not only Miriam Yeung and Bai Ling's characters. Even if Fruit Chan had only given us 37 minutes of his biggest project yet, it still would've meant happy days for fans of his. That his talents merge seamlessly with the bigger names Takashi Miike and Park Chan-Wook in full movie format is just icing on the cake.
Both dvd releases are available from Mega Star (only a 1 disc version is available currently of Three... Extremes. The initial pressing had a bonus disc with the making of's). The 1.78:1 framed anamorphic transfers look pretty much identical, revealing good sharpness, detail and colours. Some small pieces of print damage can be seen but nothing that will detract.
The original audio track mixes Cantonese, Mandarin and the options on offer are Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and DTS-ES 5.1 but as I'm not equipped with such a system, my assessment of this disc aspect will be left off this review.
The English subtitles between the versions are in meaning the same but they seem a little less refined on the long version. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.
3 making of programs accompanied the 2 disc edition while Dumplings for obvious reasons only features the Hong Kong segment. Clocking in at 14 minutes and 33 seconds and featuring the same subtitle options as the feature, some decent exploration of casting and thematic intentions are on offer. It would need more running time to dive deeper into any issue though but as subtitles are available, it's definitely worth a look. Remainder of the extras contains a not so thrilling text screen with the synopsis, the trailer, cast & staff listing and English/Chinese language biographies/filmographies for Fruit Chan (also contains a well-written director's statement), producer Peter Chan and actors Miriam Yeung, Bai Ling and Tony Leung. Unusually informative, it's only Fruit Chan's biography that seems awfully short. Nice touch of Mega Star to list various awards for his films though.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson