Sunday 13 September 2009

Dumplings (2004)

Director: Fruit Chan
Star: Bai Ling

Three... Extremes was a fascinating trilogy of horror shorts, but above the contributions of Takashi Miike and Park Chan-wook, Fruit Chan's segment called Dumplings was instantly memorable and frequently quoted by family members, especially when eating out. It seems wrong to call a film about eating 'bad taste' but it is, albeit constructed impeccably with the superb cinematography of Christopher Doyle, the growing desperation shown by actress Miriam Leung and the utter matter-of-factness exhibited by Bai Ling. No wonder it was quickly expanded into this feature length film.

Bai Ling was perfectly cast as Aunt Mei, the maker of the most expensive dumplings in town. When Qing Li, a former television actress eager to stay young and beautiful comes to visit her, because cost is no object, Aunt Mei asks her to guess her age. Ling was 38 at the time but could easily be taken for a decade younger; Mrs Li guesses thirties at the most. The character is far older, as we discover later, and what keeps Aunt Mei young are the dumplings which she eats regularly. The reason they're so expensive is because they contain Aunt Mei's secret ingredient and while I didn't want to spoil that in my review of Three... Extremes, director Fruit Chan and writer Lillian Lee don't try to hide it here in the slightest: it's aborted human foetuses.

Of course the point of the story is to ask just how far people are willing to go in their quest to stay young, beautiful and desirable and fight back our common enemies, time, age and death. Mrs Li is willing to go a long way, given that her husband of fifteen years, Sije Lee, is cheating on her with his masseuse, a girl the age Qing was when she married him. She feels that her age is at least a large part of the cause and she doesn't want to be an ex-wife, so the only option she sees is to appear young enough again to win him back. That's what leads her to Aunt Mei and what leads her to escalate to a need for more and more potent dumplings, culminating with the most potent of all, the ones made from five month old foetuses.

Needless to say, this isn't something that's easy to supply, but fortunately along comes Kate, a fifteen year old girl in her fifth month of pregnancy, in need of an illegal backstreet abortion because she was apparently knocked up by her own father. So Aunt Mei gets to kill two birds with one stone, though that is a truly unforgivable phrase to use in the circumstances, especially as Mr Li's own delicacy of choice is raw bird's eggs, with crunchy little foetuses of their own. But with a film like this, what could be seen as forgivable? The entire thing is beyond the pale for many viewers from moment one and this is hardly something to recommend to all and sundry.

For horror aficionados, Dumplings is really a rare entity: a horror story for woman, in the same way as almost all horror movies are horror stories for men. There are obvious classic influences; stories like The Monkey's Paw or The Picture of Dorian Gray that speak to the quest for immortality, the tragedy of getting what you wished for and the escalating price that needs to be paid to keep it. Yet it's told with an unmistakable feminine slant, so much so that to men this appears less of a horror story and more of an exercise in icky bad taste.

I'm not sure if I should be surprised or not that it was written by a woman, Lillian Lee, a highly respected writer who also wrote the source novel for Rouge and both the novel and screenplay for Farewell My Concubine, among others. It's definitely surprising that Miriam Yeung, who plays Mrs Li, was a registered nurse before becoming an actress and that the television series she first appeared in, presumably the one that keeps coming up as a reminder of how young she used to look, was called A Recipe for the Heart.

Moreover, we rarely see a man on screen, though Sije Li is played by no less a star than a silver haired Tony Leung Ka Fai. We spend almost the entire film in the company of either Bai Ling, Miriam Yeung or both, with the rest of the cast mostly feminine, Kate and her mother the next most obvious along with Mr Li's mistress/masseuse. The men are almost always at a distance, as if all life is spent preparing for when they're going to be on screen next, precisely what Qing Li does with her life. Beyond the obvious focus on cannibalism, abortion and babies, the film also covers spousal neglect, adultery and the difference between a house and a home, all very much feminine concerns that men might find it easy to overlook. At the end of the day though, whether you watch this for meaning or for ick, it'll deliver. And that's my last pun, I promise.

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