Combining short horror tales from South Korea, Thailand, and Hong Kong, THREE (2002) benefitted from solid production and quality performances but was ultimately a rather tepid exercise. Its box office success led to the more rewarding THREE...EXTREMES, which presents the work of three higher profiles directors and jettisons the supernatural premises of its forerunner in favor of increasingly forceful and vivid horror.
While Hong Kong and South Korea are again represented here, the Thai segment has been replaced by one from Japan, helmed by festival favorite Takashi Miike. In "Box" (40 minutes), successful but reclusive novelist Kyoko (Kyoko Hasegawa) suffers from a recurring nightmare in which she is sheathed in plastic and buried alive. As a child, she and twin sister Shoko performed in a bizarre magic act that culminated with the girls folding their bodies into tiny boxes. Angered by the attention paid to Shoko by their sensei (including gifts and implied sex), Kyoko impulsively locked Shoko inside her box one evening, leading to a horrific tragedy. Back in the present, Kyoko receives a mysterious invitation which will force her to confront the past. Miike’s love of excess is well-documented and almost the sole basis for his reputation in the West, but "Box" keeps its horrors largely hidden, offering a surreal and creepy mood piece with some mesmerizing winter imagery. While a bit at odds with its more straightforward counterparts here and ultimately a fairly minor work in its director’s oeuvre, "Box" still effectively sets the tone for the increasingly frenetic and grotesque horrors that follow.
One of HK’s most popular young actresses, Miriam Yeung Chin-wah has been almost exclusively cast in lightweight and utterly forgettable romantic comedies. Desiring a change of image and the chance to demonstrate some range, she accepted the lead role in "Dumplings" (37 minutes), which casts her as aging socialite Li Qing. Formerly a highly popular TV star, Qing has seen her multi-millionaire husband (Tony Leung Kar-fai) lose interest and embark on a barely camouflaged pursuit of younger women. In order to reclaim her celebrated looks, she visits Mainland emigre Mei (ANNA AND THE KING’s Bai Ling), who is renowned for her ability to make the ravages of age disappear. The ingredients used to make her rejuvenating dumplings are not found at any market or grocery counter, but a certain national policy in Mainland China makes them fairly easy to come by. Unfortunately for Qing, the latest batch is tainted in a most unnatural way. In contrast to THE WASP WOMAN (1960) and other earlier takes on this premise, there is actually little difference in Qing’s appearance before and after the treatments. For a woman her age, she is quite handsome and possesses very few flaws. After the treatments, Qing looks slightly more radiant but essentially unchanged, which helps to emphasize the message about how horribly superficial society has become in regards to appearance. Christopher Doyle’s camerawork, Chan Kwong-wing’s abrasive musical cues, and the moistest sound FX this side of a Lucio Fulci film make simple food items seem remarkably unnatural and grotesque (adding to the revulsion one feels upon learning the source of Mei’s "secret ingredients") and there is also a potent dash of Cronenbergian corporeal corruption to unsettle the viewer. A very physical, capricious actress, Bai is used far more effectively here than in her American films (where she is little more than token exotic eye candy) and, in spite of her ghoulish proclivities, she emerges as the most bewitching character in the entire feature. One of director Fruit Chan Guo earliest works was the mediocre ghost story FINALE IN BLOOD (1991/93), but he is far better known for his series of award-winning arthouse features, including MADE IN HONG KONG (1997) and DURIAN DURIAN (2000). Although considered to be the elite of HK independent filmmakers, Chan proves to be a good fit with this commercial material and his proven skill with actors is apparent once more.
The final segment, Park Chan-wook’s "Cut" (45 minutes), opens with handsome, well-liked director Ryu Ji-ho (JOINT SECURITY AREA’s Lee Byung-hun) finishing up a day’s shooting on his latest opus, a vampire film. After being rendered unconscious by an unseen assailant, Ryu awakens on the now-empty set and is horrified to find his wife (Kang Hye-jung) bound to a piano like some grotesque marionette, her fingers glued to the keys. The man responsible (played by OUT OF JUSTICE’s Lim Won-hee) appeared as an extra in several of Ryu’s earlier movies and was impressed by his kindness. However, he has decided to determine just how true this benevolence is by subjecting the director to a grisly test: for every five minutes that Ryu delays in strangling a little girl the man has kidnaped, his wife will lose a finger. Similar in style and every bit as relentless as Park’s grueling and merciless Cannes champion OLDBOY (2003), "Cut" also benefits from the same edgy approach and blacker than pitch asides. Home invasion has been featured in other recent horror films, but this antagonist’s motivation is uniquely absurd (the intolerable notion that a rich and successful man could also be sincerely benevolent and a better person than a poverty-stricken soul like himself), revealing just how deep his psychosis runs. The trauma-induced breakdown of an individual’s humanity and civility is a genre precept, but kinetic staging and sharp direction give this familiar scenario an extra dash of potency, making "Cut" the most powerful of the stories here.
The HK segment in THREE also played theatrically on its own, but that director’s cut was only slightly longer, while DUMPLINGS: THREE...EXTREMES gains 54 minutes and benefits significantly from the narrative expansion. The screenplay by novelist Lillian Lee Pik-wah (FAREWELL, MY CONCUBINE, ROUGE) incorporates more about the real-life history of Mei’s special filling, as well as the subtle character enhancements that are inevitably lost when so much is removed (like how Qing’s astounding vanity even precludes her wearing glasses, though she obviously needs them). The more relaxed pacing allows one to more clearly see Mei’s casual amorality rubbing off on Qing (who goes from calculating, narcissistic and superficial to vile and truly corrupted), but also enhances the film’s creepiness. The ending is also completely different, with a memorably lurid final image. If possible, see this version first, as it is clearly more effective, though the abridged cut remains interesting for its editorial changes and alternate finale.