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Three...Extremes Print E-mail
Friday, 28 October 2005
Starring: Miriam Yeung, Bai Ling, Tony Kai-Fung Leung
Director: Fruit Chan
Rating: Two Stars

Starring: Byung-Hun Lee, Lim Won-Hee, Kang Hye-Jeong
Director: Chan Wook Park
Rating: Three Stars

Starring: Kyoko Hasegawa, Atsuro Watabe, Mai Suzuki, Yuu Suzuki
Director: Miike Takashi
Rating: Three Stars

“Three… Extremes” is an omnibus horror movie in, as the title says, three sections, one each from China, Korea and Japan, and yes, they are (varyingly) extreme. All are well done, and the first two include elements that makes them hard to sit—or squirm—through. The third is much more sedate and elliptically told; it’s also the best of the lot, directed by Miike Takashi, whose “Audition” brought him some recognition in the U.S. Chan-Wook Park, director of the second, gained a lot of fame and notoriety for his “Old Boy” of last year. The improbably named (by Western standards) Fruit Chan handled the first segment, photographed by the great Christopher Doyle. Chan’s “Made in Hong Kong” of 1997 was the film that began to establish his international reputation.

Now that I’ve backed through the three stories….

In Chan’s “Dumplings,” formerly well-known soap opera actress Qing (Miriam Yeung) visits the cheerful, messy “Aunt” Mei (Bai Ling) at her cheap, slightly gaudy apartment. We soon learn that she’s come there for Mei’s special dumplings, which she prepares and serves on the spot, usually winding up with a song as her customer dines. Chan plays his cards close to the vest; we have to pick up from bits of dialogue what’s going on here, and what makes Mei’s dumplings so special that a well-off woman would venture into a rundown area of Hong Kong to eat at the home of the kind of woman who still wears gaudy toreador pants.

Qing learned of the dumplings from friends, and has come to learn if they really do restore youth and vitality. She’s already inured herself to knowing that the dumplings are made of chopped-up human fetuses and their placentas. Mei has a sideline as an abortionist—one is graphically shown—and has put the byproducts of her labors to another use.
The intention here is to shock us while yet understanding that the extremes some people go to for youth and vitality are, even now, only slightly less horrifying that what we’re shown here. But the story becomes clumsy and hard to follow toward the end, which involves the stabbing of Qing’s husband and her discovery that she herself is pregnant (after years of failing to conceive). There are shots of Qing (apparently) dressed as a common worker carrying a pair of buckets that don’t relate to anything now in the story.

The subject is indeed shocking, hearkening back to Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” a black satire also intended to shock. There are a few shots of Mei cheerfully chopping up pink, red and white fragments of flesh that could turn a few stomachs, but everything is presented in a simple, straight-forward style. Gruesome yes, but given the subject matter, actually a bit restrained.

“Cut” is more direct with its presentation of violence and gore in a story that resembles last year’s “Saw.” A famous young director (Byung-Hun Lee) leaves the set of his current movie—evidently about vampires—and returns to his palatial home, which provided the model for the sets of the movie. But unexpectedly the lights go out.

When they come back on, he finds himself in his vast, blue-walled living room. A grinning man (Kang Hye-Jeong) he doesn’t recognized has fastened him to the wall with a long elastic band. The intruder clearly hates him, and is darkly amused that the director doesn’t recognize him. He’s been an extra in many of the director’s films—and runs through quick changes of the costumes he wore in a few of them—but is furious at the director.

The director’s wife (Lim Won-Hee) is gagged and suspended by ropes in mid-air before the piano (she’s a noted pianist), and as the director helplessly watches, the intruder glues her fingertips to the keys.

Has the director treated him badly? Not at all. In fact, that’s part of what has enraged the intruder. The director was born into a wealthy family, attended school in America, returned to Korea to achieve fame as a director. He’s also known to be a very decent guy; in fact, he spoke up on behalf of the extra himself. Which only made him hate the director more. Why do great things come to people already blessed with fortune and beautiful wives? (This has elements in common with Kurosawa’s “High and Low.”)

The intruder killed his own wife earlier in the day. It’s nothing to him to chop off one of the fingers of the director’s wife. He says that he’ll continue to cut them off until the director can demonstrate how that he’s even lower and more despicable than the intruder himself. And voila, the intruder whips the cover off a young bound girl. If the director will kill her, the intruder will let him and his wife go. The rest of the story is a battle of wills.

This segment is strikingly designed with those sky blue walls and black-and-white tile floor. It looks very elegant, especially contrasted with the horrors being enacted on the spot. If you notice that this looks a lot like a set, don’t be surprised.

In many ways, “Cut” is the strongest of the “Three… Extremes.” It’s more intense, has a wider range of emotions, and, unlike the other two, is very suspenseful. But it ends on a note of such cold-hearted cynicism that it undercuts its own impact.

“Box” is the most artful of the three, a very interior, layered tale with a surprise ending. We see a man in a broad snowy field burying a box with a young woman inside, wrapped in plastic. She’s Kyoko (Kyoko Hasegawa), who wakes up and bed and tells an unseen person the dream always ends there.

In a bleak, unused apartment building, Kyoko has an encounter with a man (Atsuro Watabe) eventually revealed to be her editor or agent. She’s a writer whose novels are doing well, but she’s deeply troubled. First the editor then after his departure Kyoko herself sees what might be the ghost of her long-dead sister. She’s also puzzled by the editor’s parting gift of a music box and a charred dart.

The story is not linear, told partly in flashback, partly in dreams. As a child, Kyoko and her twin sister Shoko had an elegant little circus act: they first danced a bit of ballet, then each limber sister folded herself into boxes that look to small to hold anyone. Their manager (or father; never made clear) tosses darts at the boxes, which open in a burst of flowers.

Kyoko is jealous of the praise the stepfather (or father) showers on Shoko and not her, and carries out a plan of revenge intended to be no more than slightly sadistic, but which goes terribly wrong.

If “Cut” is the most straightforward of the trio, “Box” is the most unusual and haunting. It’s slow-moving and graceful, never revealing any more than necessary until the (rather clichéd) surprise ending.

These are, to be sure, horror stories told in three varying but all intense and controlled styles. But not one of them is the slightest bit frightening, though “Cut” works up a lot of suspense. However, it then shatters the suspense by a very unwelcome, unpleasant ending.

In recent years, Asian horror movies have become very inventive, very gruesome and highly imaginative—and also successful the world over, leading to the string of recent American remakes. There have been many omnibus horror movies down through the years, starting way back in the silent era in Germany. Some, like “Dead of Night” and “Tales from the Crypt” (the feature film), have worked very well, but they all must have been reasonably successful because there are so many of them. Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Steven Spielberg and Stephen King have all contributed to this kind of film. It was only a matter of time before the current crop of Asian horror directors took a swing at a multi-story film.

“Three… Extremes” is uneven but great-looking with some eerie moments and good performances. It’s not likely to get wide play in the United States, but if you like horror movies, it’s worth seeking out on its inevitable DVD release.

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