2004Director: Fruit Chan
Cast: Ling Bai, Miriam Yeung Chin Wah, Tony Leung Ka Fai
ngling off from the gory and sedative veins of the New Asian horror genre, but with an equal measure of stomach-turning boorishness, Fruit Chan’s Dumplings is an exercise in digestive resilience for both vegetarians and omnivores alike. Yet for all its ruthless, laissez-faire narrative ambiguity, the direction of the story is more than approachable. Rather like being blindly led through a curved tunnel with an unpredictable course, Dumplings is quick to careen into unpalatable territory just as you begin get a handle on where you think it’s headed.
This is not so much a horror story as it is a joyous, subtly artistic psycho-thriller. Occasionally nauseating, frequently over the top, this tiny gem of a horror movie delights in its determination to never let go. Chan obviously knows what he wants to do here, but does not make these things clear to the audience. No questions are answered, no reasons are supplied–the final testament of which being the ominous denouement.
Fans got a taste of Fruit Chan’s tormenting gore-fest with last year’s pan-Asian horror omnibus Three… Extremes (with contributions from Park Chan-wook and Takashi Miike), where Dumplings was rolled out in reduced, 37-minute long form. Easily the most memorable of the three entries, Fruit Chan was quick to release an “uncut,” extended version of his nightmarish story to satisfy the—ahem—hungry souls yearning for more of this very Asian culinary delicacy. After having seen the cut version, if you’re still unconvinced as to whether the 60 extra minutes are worth your time, the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ Chan’s film is so compellingly re-watchable that skipping supper won’t be a problem.
The story itself doesn’t break new ground. Rather Chan handles the subject matter in such a way that the delivery soon outshines any awkward sketchiness presented by the narrative. Fading television actress and Hong Kong socialite Mrs. Lee (Miriam Yeung) is not coping well with aging. In a vain attempt to keep her rapidly-spreading wrinkles at bay and save her failing marriage, she finds herself on a decrepit high-rise in downtown Kowloon, a town in mainland China. There, an attractive yet trashy “young” woman by the name of Mei (Bai Ling) owns a reasonably successful dumplings trade. But this is no place for brunch. Auntie Mei’s dumplings cost a small fortune and offer something money seemingly can’t buy: eternal youth. Mrs. Lee, all too eager to buy into this, soon spirals into a dumpling-heavy diet. This not only dilates the repugnance of the story, but provides Chan with plenty of material to execute his vision from dozens of impetuous perspectives.
But what’s in these dumplings that makes them so potent? And how well do they actually work? When you find out, you’ll think twice before ordering that Chinese takeaway again. Chan reveals this surprise early on, thus allowing his focus to shift toward the territory of psychological tension. It should be noted that Dumplings does contain some truly repulsive and disturbing scenes; moments that will turn some stomachs, shake some seats, and ultimately rank within the annals of the horror canon.
Still, the film is not especially scary per se. Rather than simply building up to a memorably heinous ending, Chan layers elements of narrative that extend beyond the conventions of the genre he swiftly defies. The film develops more as social drama than your average Asian gorefest. In the relationship between the two protagonists, Chan attempts to typify an ever-present Chinese class divide. Set against a Hong Kong-Kowloon backdrop, this dynamic further intensifies the cultural analysis he’s attempting to illustrate.
Shot by DP extraordinaire Christopher Doyle, the film is engrossed by an ambience of visual delicacy and allure, while Chan Kwong-Ming’s hilariously over-the-top score contributes to a quietly surreal and claustrophobic reality. These elements further becloud the line between fiction and reality, bridging the gap between the movie’s social ambitions and the overall outlandishness of the content. The eternal quest for beauty and youth, an archetypal theme throughout history, is nothing new for Western audiences, but Dumplings handily eschews cliché. Chan’s tranquil approach peaks with a revelatory ending as satisfying as it is evasive.
Dumplings is currently playing in theatres in the UK.Three…Extremes is available on DVD.