Directed by Fruit Chan, 2004
I’d been waiting months for the R1 release of Three.. Extremes – as opposed to ‘importing’ the bootleg – because I knew the second disc was going to be the feature length cut of Fruit Chan’s Dumplings, which is easily the high tide line of the trilogy of shorts. It worked almost flawlessly – I say almost because it had a few transitional problems – as a 45 minute or so short, so I wondered if Fruit Chan could draw the story of fetal eating to a complete and sustainable 90 minutes?
I loved every frame of it.
In my humble opinion, Dumplings is a master work. Fruit Chan has methodically constructed a very cohesive piece of horror in which every detail grinds at your senses and I’ve got nothing but respect for him. The story of an aging actress who is so desperate to regain her youth that she seeks out an anti-aging guru who cooks aborted fetuses is disturbing on a multitude of levels in its own right, but what really makes the film disturbing is how Chan approaches it from every angle.
He never beats it over your head that they’re eating fetuses. In fact, you never see a full on fetus for more than a few seconds, at most, throughout the entire film. But the simple and subtle knowledge that they are eating babies is enough to make you cringe every single time you see a dumpling pass through Mrs. Li’s lips. And the design of the dumplings themselves is fantastic. The dough is transparent just enough to reveal a tiny hint of pink inside and the mind reels when trying to (or, rather trying not to) imagine the tiny fetus that went into it. It’s revolting and yet looks delicious. He never glorifies cannibalism in the film, but it looks so damn apetiezing that you can’t help but feel a remote sense of guilt while watching. It’s a delight to find a movie that can still keep you glued to the screen, protesting in your head the actions of the character on screen while secretly hoping they go through with it all. I guarantee this is the thought process of any person during the first eating scene:
Oh god! She isn’t really going to eat that, is she? Do not put that in your mouth! For the love of god, do not eat that! She isn’t going to eat it. She can’t eat it. OH MY GOD SHE’S EATING IT! SHE IS ACTUALLY EATING A DEAD BABY!!! FUCK, IS SHE GOING BACK FOR SECONDS?!?! FUCKK!!
But if the optical portions of the brain weren’t enough to inspire such disgust, there is sound. And the sound design in Dumplings is phenomenal. You can hear the meat sloshing and slurping around her mouth as she bites down. You can hear the tiny, partially developed bones crunching under her teeth. It is a haunting 5.1 mix that really messes with all of your senses, not just your hearing. I love it!
And the music, my god the music! It cuts to the core and is enough to send chills down your spine. It often has this industrial groan to it that is very remeniscent of the Tripod’s trumpet in War of the Worlds – which still gives me a rush whenever I hear it. It’s upbeat and cheerful whenever we’re rooting for Mrs. Li’s transformation and intimidating as hell whenever it wants to be. A wonderful score.
The feature length cut differs a bit from the short. The most notable is the completely different ending. I’ll not give away either ending, but I will say I greatly prefered the short’s conclusion. It was so decadently evil and so philosophically perverse that you couldn’t help but marvel at the atrocity of it. The feature’s ending isn’t at all unwelcome, but it just isn’t nearly as disturbing as the shorts. However, the extra 45 minutes of the feature compensate perfectly. We’re treated to a slow brew of insanity – that goes by very quick – that wasn’t possible in the short. The build up to the sheer breakdown of the last bit of humanity and reason is faster and more potent in the short, thanks solely to the horrible, rock-bottom act Mrs. Li commits at the climax. You can pick between either cut, because they both work effortlessly.
This longer cut has ample time to tell the story of the 15 year old girl whose baby Mrs. Li eats, which amps the spine chilling factor of that plot thread up greatly. Plus, in this cut the murder in the 15 year old girl’s house is more established and doesn’t jut out of nowhere like it did before.
In addition to more character build up between Mrs. Li and her husband (who plays an even sleazier role here), Aunt Mei, the chef behind all of the dumplings, is given enough material to paint her in a brand new light. No longer is she simply the woman who provides the dumpling for the aging and desperate actress, but she is a creepy, manipulative old-woman-trapped-in-a-young-woman’s-body who is oddly sexual at the strangest times. Bai Ling rocks the role perfectly. I love a lot of the new dialogue she was given about the history, and her personal justification, for cannibalism.
And my god the cinematography! Christopher Doyle is legend. Casual film goers don’t pay attention to cinematographers, so that name will be meaningless to you if you are one (which isn’t a bad thing), but anyone who is a fan of Asian cinema will undoubtedly be a huge fan of Doyle as well. The man is the greatest working cinematographer out there. Every picture he lenses is strikingly perfect. The man is a God with a camera. Dumplings is no different.
It is a film I heartily recommend to anyone who knows good, deep horror when they see it. This isn’t the shock and awe campaign of studio fare as of late. There are no cheap thrills here. No jump cuts to a bloody or contorted face. No deathly pale Asian girl with 4 foot long black hair standing still at the end of a corridor. There is a great and inspired method to this madness. If your idea of perfect horror is Saw or The Ring, don’t bother with Dumplings; it’s better than those cheap tactics.
Nothing here is meant to scare you, but it is meant to hit on every guttural impulse you have. It is never forcefully graphic, always hinting at just enough grizzly details for your mind to fill in the blanks. You’ll remember Dumplings long after the credits; in that it does not dissapoint.