After the box office and critical success of Three, a 2002 horror anthology that featured twisted tales directed by top Hong Kong, Korean, and Thai filmmakers, it was perhaps inevitable that a sequel would one day rear its terrifying head. In the spirit of EC horror comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, the three stories that make up Three…Extremes essentially amount to horrific morality tales, albeit ones far murkier, more complex, and decidedly less interested in “just deserts” than their more straightforward 50s era predecessors.
Of the three stories, the first one, Fruit Chan’s Dumplings, most closely follows the Tales from the Crypt-style narrative template. Adapted from a novella by Lilian Lee (who also wrote the script), Dumplings centers on Ching (Miriam Yeung playing older than her real age), a former actress whose glory days as a beloved TV star have long since passed. If getting old wasn’t bad enough, it seems that her husband Mr. Lee (Tony Leung Ka-Fei) has been fooling around with a younger woman.
Less interested in rekindling her love than affirming her vanity, Ching vows to win her man back, no matter the cost. The grotesque “price” of her selfish desire is perhaps what makes this film most closely resemble those classic EC horror comics, although the requisite scene in which her character gets her comeuppance, crucial in those old Vault of Horror/Tales from the Crypt-style stories, never quite happens.
In the opening scene of the film, we find Ching approaching an apartment complex in search of Mei (Bai Ling, toning down the histrionics), a woman who some say possesses the secret of eternal youth. Supposedly, Mei isn’t quite as young as she looks, and it’s all thanks to her secret dumpling recipe. Got wrinkles? Sagging skin? Or maybe just feeling ugly? Well, with a few bites of Mei’s prized dumplings, you’re sure to feel twenty years younger. Your skin will be practically glowing.
But if that’s really the case, then why does Mei rely on word-of-mouth to reach her clientele? Why doesn’t she just patent her recipe, sell her dumplings openly in a restaurant, or get herself a late night infomercial like every other quick-fix, anti-aging product on the market? Well, if you knew what Mei’s secret ingredient was, you wouldn’t be asking such a question. Let’s just say the contents aren’t “finger lickin’good” by any stretch of the imagination.
Despite their revolting origins, once Ching sees the results that the dumplings can provide, she hungers for more – even worse, she wants a more potent dosage. But where’s that going to come from? If this film is posing the question, “How far will someone go to keep their youth?” The answer, at least in Ching’s case, is all the way. Vanity knows no boundaries in the world of Dumplings.
Of all the films included in this anthology, Dumplings is not only the most straightforwardly entertaining, but the most socially relevant as well. We live in an increasingly youth-oriented culture where people will do just about anything – creams, treatments, surgeries – to cheat Father Time. Here, Fruit Chan pushes that common, wholly relatable impulse to maintain one’s beauty to a very horrific extreme.
Further, Chan’s measured approach to the narrative is a refreshing change of pace from most contemporary horror films. The casting of Miriam Yeung is effective, allowing Chan to gradually reveal that the face of evil isn’t always some stark-raving lunatic, but can even be seen in the banal concerns of a middle-aged Chinese auntie. Thanks to cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the film pops with color – blood reds and dark greens in particular – which gives the film a strangely vibrant, often enticing feel, despite the entirely repellant subject matter. Kudos should also go to the sound effects department, without whom the full horrifying impact of what’s actually in those dumplings would not be quite so effective.
The second film, Cut, is a far less successful endeavor, although it’s no less engaging – at least for the first two acts. Directed by Oldboy’s Park Chan-Wook, the film plays with what’s real and what’s cinema, although not to any coherent purpose. In opening moments of the film, we are introduced to a successful director (Lee Byung-Hun), who is kidnapped upon returning to his home after a night of shooting his latest horror film. When he wakes up, he discovers that he’s back on the set (which looks exactly like his living room) and that his wife (Kang Hye-Jeong) has been tied up to a Steinway via some piano wires suspended overhead.
His hands bound and his body tethered to the wall, the director can do nothing but watch in horror as his kidnapper plays a deadly game of “This little piggy” with the woman’s precious piano-playing fingers. Who is this madman? And why does he want to torment the director? I won’t reveal his identity here, but I will say that his motivation is as intriguing as it is completely nutty – he hates the filmmaker because…he’s a good guy. This bizarre reasoning prompts the director to make a number of confessions to disabuse the kidnapper of his favorable opinion, but nothing he confesses to would put St. Augustine, let alone Usher, to shame. Running out of ideas, the director quickly finds himself in the middle of a tough moral quandary that could mean certain death for his wife or for a little girl that the stranger has kidnapped as well. What will he do?
Easily the weakest of the three films, Cut does work as kind of middle act for the larger anthology, as its reality/cinema aesthetic effectively bridges the “realism” of Dumplings and the utterly surreal nature of the final film, Box. On its own, however, Cut never really capitalizes on the promise of its opening premise. To its credit, the film looks amazing and possesses a tongue-in-cheek deliriousness that makes it fun to watch, but in the end, the story goes nowhere.
The third film, directed by Takashi Miike, is the darkest, most surreal, and most dream-like of the omnibus. Infused with a complexity not readily apparent in the previous films, Box is given to us in a strangely nonlinear way in which dreams, fantasies, the past, and the present all intertwine. At its heart, the film is about a woman haunted by a past crime. Or is it?
When Kyoko (Kyoko Hasegawa) was a little girl, she and her twin sister, Shoko, were members of a magic act. The two girls possessed the amazing flexibility of gymnasts, so the magician (Atsuro Watabe) would have them contort themselves into all sorts of impossible poses, ultimately concluding his magic act by performing a trick in which the girls would lock themselves into two tiny boxes and then disappear.
In the film, it’s ambiguous as to whether the magician is the father of the twin girls, although Takashi Miike states on the commentary that he is not. However you choose to interpret their relationship, there is no doubt that there is something going on between the older man and Shoko – of what nature, at least initially, it is unclear. Showered with attention by him and even allowed to sleep with him at night, Shoko is the ostensibly star of the show and the apple of the magician’s eye.
Jealous of her sister, Kyoko decides to lock Shoko in one of the boxes in order to replace her for one precious night at her master’s bedside. Unfortunately, things get out of hand, culminating in Kyoko’s self-imposed exile to an urban metropolis. However, all these years later, something is calling her back to the snow-covered countryside where she left the circus behind. What lurks for her there?
While Miike’s horror films tend to be hit or miss, I’m glad to report that Box works rather well. I preferred Fruit Chan’s film over this one, but I could definitely appreciate Miike’s minimalist approach to the genre, as his film relies not on cheap scares, but instead on absolutely bone-chilling atmosphere. Further, his technique of dropping out the sound at key moments in the narrative works wonders in a genre that mostly uses music to make people jump out of their seats.
Full of creeping dread that's sure to please horror fans, Box also possesses the most haunting imagery in the entire anthology. In fact, one of the final images in the film will likely leave you scratching your head in confusion, perhaps wondering just what the hell it meant, not to mention its significance to the story as a whole.
Still, the conclusion isn’t as random or as nonsensical as it might first seem – it makes perfect sense in the larger context, inviting repeat viewings for interested parties. In that sense, Box succeeds by simply giving its viewers just enough information, rather than spelling everything out. As the saying goes, we fear what we don’t understand, and in Box, Takashi Miike manipulates that to ample effect.
As a horror anthology, Three…Extremes is definitely one of the better ones out there – in both an Asian and Hollywood context. Boasting great performances from major Asian actors and actresses, as well as some intriguing work by three of the top directors in Asia, this is one sequel that easily eclipses the original. Although horror films tend to get sequelized into obsolescence, I wouldn’t mind at all if there’s a Three³ somewhere on the horizon. (Calvin McMillin, 2009)