Lionsgate // 2004 // 126 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // March 27th, 2006
From the nightmares of Asia's horror masters.
Almost like getting a mixed sampler meal at a Chinese restaurant, 3 Extremes is a peek at what some of the greatest horror directors in Asia are up to these days, a two-hour collection that features three distinct flavors. Whether or not you're a fan of Asian horror or wondering where to start, it's a DVD that you should not miss.
The three films in this collection are only connected by genre. Each is a different take on horror, each by a very accomplished director, each from a different country. Because of this, I will judge each one on its own merits, though they have been connected enough that I will grade them together. They are designed to be watched and compared and discussed as a group.
China's entry in this anthology comes from the twisted mind of Fruit Chan (Durian Durian). Dumplings tells the tale of Qing Lee (Miriam Leung, Color of Sound), an aging television star who has drifted from her husband and fears the onset of old age. As with many women, she is willing to do just about anything in order to maintain her youthful appearance. She begins to visit "Auntie Mei" (Bai Ling, The Beautiful Country), a local cook who makes dumplings with a very special ingredient. She claims that her dumplings will restore Mrs. Lee's youth. They begin to work, but as the secret ingredient is revealed, Mrs. Lee must decide whether protecting her looks and her marriage is worth eating such a horrible thing.
Korea's entry in the anthology is delivered by Chan-wook Park of Oldboy-fame. In it, a breakout director (Byung-hun Lee, 3-Iron) is taken hostage on a movie set he has modeled after his home. He finds both his wife's life (Hye-jeong Kang, Oldboy) and his own in the hands of a madman (Won-hie Lim, Crying Fist) bent on playing a vicious and savage game.
Takashi Miike's is a better-known name than the other two directors. He offers Japan's entry in this horror anthology. Box is the story of Kyoko (Kyoko Hasegawa, Jiyuu Renai), a young woman who is plagued by dreams of being trapped in a box. When she searches back into her memory, she begins to realize that there may be a genuinely good reason for these dreams. Something is haunting her, and the key to discovering what it is is somewhere in her own past.
Horror has a strange knack for using vivid imagery to explore societal issues. Dumplings considers the obsession so many women have with youth and beauty -- whether it's a personal struggle to maintain a youthful look, or the feeling of societal pressure. Some women will do anything to look a certain way, including enduring rather unpleasant and painful experiences. Makeup, cosmetic surgery, extreme dieting...the list goes on and on. But what if there was something absolutely atrocious that women could do to restore their youthful beauty? Auntie Mei's dumplings are about as disgusting as anything I can imagine, but the fountain of youth has always come with some sort of catch. Some sacrifice must be made in order to capture the unattainable. Surely, that's why Mrs. Lee returns after she has seen what she's been eating.
Fruit Chan also points to the way we tend to benefit from the suffering of others. The more horrible the circumstances under which her secret ingredient was obtained, the better Mei's dumplings work. The women who frequent her shop don't care. They just want their beauty back.
The remarkable thing, though, isn't the social commentary. This is one of the most sensual and beautiful films I've ever seen, despite its gruesome content. Christopher Doyle's camera swoops through the sets with style and grace, showing each shape and detail. From the cooking of the dumplings to the details of the women who eat them, every frame of Dumplings is a work of art. The cinematography is aided by incredible performances, especially from Miriam Leung and Tony Leung, both far younger than the characters they play. Bai Ling is also remarkable, showing her age in her actions, not her appearance.
The horror in Dumplings comes from the terrible nature of the dumplings themselves, and the grisly reality that we will do terrible things to make our own lives better. Even at 40 minutes, it's a film that lingers in the memory for days.
Chan-wook Park has been getting a lot of attention on the international scene now, ever since Oldboy floored audiences all over the globe. He is one of the most unique craftsmen currently working in film, and the release of one of his films is an exciting thing. As it turns out, even his short films are worth getting excited about.
While Dumplings tries to dig deep into humanity, Cut is a simpler brand of horror. Our hero is captured by an angry madman, and must find a way to escape his clutches. As in most of Park's films, this insanity plays out in physical terms. The horror here comes from the torture that the characters endure. It's a more visceral and immediate fear, and not for the faint of heart. But Cut does offer a certain cleverness in its exploration of the relationship between art and reality. Park's hero is a newly famous director, who has become too famous for his own good. As the situation develops, life begins to imitate art as the director's own life starts to take the form of his film. Cut flips back and forth from sharply funny to gut-churningly gruesome, all using the timing of a master filmmaker.
None of the performances here are particularly thrilling. The real focus is Park's direction and cinematography. In keeping with the David Fincher school of editing, the camera flies freely through the set, a constant reminder of the control a director has in a film. Of course, in this case that control is ironic, as we watch a director being manipulated by one of his characters, his structured life collapsing into a chaotic mess. Either way, it's easy to see that Park is playing around, testing new technology and filming styles while he's working on a short film that doesn't have the same importance as a feature. As always, his level of control and style is impressive. The video and sound design in this segment is among the best I've seen, as it never once gets mired in technical convention.
Unfortunately, the end is quite a bit weaker. Several unanswered questions and a huge logical leap left a bad taste in my mouth. Still, this is a nasty, vicious little piece of horror, Which gleefully lives up to the "Extreme" label.
Takashi Miike is the most famous director in this anthology, and that makes Box even more disappointing. Miike has always been noted for his vivid imagery, which Box has in spades. This is the simplest horror of the three, built around a very specific fear. Being trapped in a tiny box and buried alive would be one of the most frightening experiences a person could go through. Countless films have capitalized on this fear already, and Miike uses it to great effect here.
The non-linear structure of Box works to its advantage, since it is such a simple, straightforward tale. In fact, the biggest problem is that it's too simple. After the subtlety and inventiveness of the first two films, Box fails to impress on a number of levels. It's plagued by slow pacing, especially for such a short film, and has too much exposition. The story isn't that great, either, once it all comes together.
Of course, horror isn't all about story, and Miike knows that. He does remarkable things with (painfully obvious) symbolism and creepy cinematography. All of the usual tricks are here, including a number of big scares. If Miike had focused on these great visuals, he could have made a fantastic little carnival of terror here. Instead, he has delivered a bland horror film with arresting visuals. Evaluated independently, Box may have gotten a higher score. Miike is in the presence of other masters here, though, and his efforts have fallen a bit short. It remains well worth a watch.
* The Disc
Fans of Asian horror don't need to be told to check out 3 Extremes. This combination of directors is too cool to pass up. The bigger question is whether this American release is up to snuff. I bought the region free Hong Kong edition of 3 Extremes about a year ago, an edition that boasts a stunning transfer and a spine-tingling DTS-ES track, missing here.
As it turns out, Lionsgate's edition stacks up pretty well. The same impressive video transfer is included here. It is reference quality. While each director has his own distinct visual style, every moment has been captured without any transfer flaws. Although the DTS track is missing, the included Dolby 5.1 track is also very strong. All three films are shown in their original languages. I preferred the order of the films in my other edition (Box was first and Cut was last), which made the films accelerate in speed, rather than fizzle towards the end.
The real benefit of this edition is in the extras. Takashi Miike has provided a commentary track for Box. Once again, he proves to be a very pleasant, ordinary guy who likes to direct strange and twisted films. More importantly, the second disc offers a feature length version of Dumplings. It was made afterwards, cut together with additional footage that didn't make the 40-minute version. It is not as strong, but does add a lot more depth to the story. Fans of the film will want to check out this version as well, to explore Chan's disturbing vision even more. Getting this as a special feature is a great deal, especially for fans who would gladly shell out money again to get the longer version of the film. The second disc also has a production featurette, which is actually pretty good.
If you're a fan of Asian horror, 3 Extremes is a no-brainer. It's a well produced anthology of fine films from great directors, all placed in a strong DVD package. Don't let the cover art turn you away: This is no direct to video gore-fest. It's an exploration into the heart of cinematic horror, an exploration that is chilling, disturbing and thoughtful. Even if you haven't been exposed to much in the genre, this anthology would be a great place to start.
While I wouldn't recommend eating Auntie Mei's dumplings in order to get it, don't miss out on the chance to see this great collection of short films. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2006 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Japanese, with Korean and Chinese)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Japanese, with Korean and Chinese)
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Box Commentary with Takashi Miike
* Dumplings Feature Length Version
* Dumplings Production Featurette