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Dumplings: Three...Extremes
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(left) Bai Ling, (center) Miriam Yeung, and (right) Miriam Yeung and Tony Leung Ka-Fai
Chinese: 餃子 三更 2 之一
Year: 2004
Director: Fruit Chan Gor
Producer: Peter Chan Ho-Sun
Writer: Lilian Lee Bik-Wah
Cast: Miriam Yeung Chin-Wah, Bai Ling, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Miki Yeung Oi-Gan, Meme Tian
The Skinny: Proof that Fruit Chan should try to do more narrative film. This ninety-minute version of the Dumplings short from Three...Extremes is entertaining, accomplished, and haunting stuff, and an absorbing triumph of technique and style.
by Kozo:

A group of acclaimed creators steps outside the box for Dumplings: Three...Extremes. A ninety-minute version of director Fruit Chan's segment of the horror omnibus Three...Extremes (which also happens to be the sort-of sequel to 2002's award-winning horror anthology Three), Dumplings comes courtesy of a variety of unexpected creators. Based on a novella from Lillian Lee (Farewell, My Concubine), and produced by Peter Chan, the film stars the unlikely pair of box office queen Miriam Yeung and Hollywood actress Bai Ling. It also nixes the supernatural creepiness normally associated with the genre and delivers a haunting and even realistic glimpse at human horrors. As such, it runs the risk of being viewed as pedestrian, especially since Fruit Chan doesn't go way over-the-top ALA Herman Yau of The Untold Story. Regardless, this is excellent, though questionably appetizing stuff.

Miriam Yeung dons subtle makeup and an unflattering old lady hairstyle to play Ching, a middle-aged former TV star whose best years are far behind her. When we first meet her, she's just shown up at the apartment of Mei (Bai Ling), a mysterious woman who's alluring in a trashy/sexy way. Immediately, Mei knows that Ching is here to sample her renowned and extremely expensive dumplings. Featuring a glutinous, semitransparent outer skin and filling that's alarmingly pinkish in hue, the dumplings are renowned not necessarily for their taste, but for their reputed anti-aging properties. More to the point, the dumplings are supposed to make a middle-aged woman with sagging skin into a firm-skinned goddess bursting with sexually-appealing youth. Or so Mei claims.

Ching's reason for ingesting the dumplings is no mystery, though. She's desperate to regain the affection of her husband Mr. Lee (Tony Leung Ka-Fai sporting a white-haired dye job), who's taken to consorting with his masseuse, among other nubile young lasses. Ching longs for him to look at her again, not necessarily because she loves him, but because his disinterest hurts her vanity. She's no longer the charming, fresh-faced youth who charmed audiences on television (a kind of pseudo-irony since Miriam Yeung is still charming, fresh-faced and young), and simply wants to regain the feeling and outward luster of being physically young and beautiful. But, as anyone who's seen a "mystery meat" movie can tell you, there's a price. However, in this case, Ching may be all too willing to absorb the consequences.

The identity of Mei's mystery meat is no big surprise. It's actually divulged fairly early in Dumplings, and when the audience is explicitly told, only the most inattentive or unskilled at viewing comprehension will be shocked. Even more, Ching knows from frame one exactly what she's ingesting, which only serves to make her willingness to eat the dumplings even more disturbing. Fruit Chan gives the film slow, deliberate style that reveals with astonishing indifference. Instead of making his revelations the stuff of shock horror, the slow realization of what's in there becomes an absorbing and intriguing experience. It's not what's in there that horrifies, but the mundane and deliberate process of obtaining the materials and preparing the dumplings is given exacting and disturbing detail. The audience is given a ringside view as Mei hunts down her ingredients and prepares them for consumption. The sequences are alternately appetizing and horrifying. It sure looks like she's creating something tasty, but as soon as you figure out what's in there, your stomach may not not forgive you for thinking so.

Ching experiences the same mixed emotions as the audience, as her own disgust at eating the dumplings is initially obvious. But since she's so intent on reaping their benefits, she steels herself to eat them. What's more, she develops a morbid curiosity at the whole process of making these special dumplings, a trait that leads her to shock, then acceptance, and ultimately an unwavering desire. The need for Ching to feel young is developed in her quiet attentiveness, and as she deliberately slurps down each dumpling, the camera luxuriously floats over her face, neck, and hands, as if we're supposed to see them working their magic. Miriam Yeung brings a quiet and utterly believable emotion to her middle-aged character, and when the stuff starts working, she seemingly starts to glow onscreen. Miriam Yeung's work here is head-turning and miles away from Love Undercover's goddess of silly, and she's matched by Bai Ling's brassy, sexy turn as the amoral Mei. Unfortunately, Mei's character is more of a showpiece than an actual living, breathing person, but Bai Ling brings enough animation to her to make her seem real. Well, as real as a near-immortal woman could possibly be.

Dumplings does have some rather noticeable debits. Fruit Chan's hands-off realism could be undermined by the film's fantasy aspect, and the journey taken doesn't result in anything concrete or enormously defining. Unlike what's dispensed on the DVD cover blurb, there is no "price" to pay for eating Mei's dumplings. That is, aside from possibly losing one's soul, though not having a soul in the first place seems to be a prerequisite for chowing down on Mei's culinary delights. A person doesn't seem to change as a result of eating the dumplings. Rather, choosing to eat them reveals the ugly vanity inherent in the human desire to remain young and beautiful. Wanting to stay as you are makes sense, but to go to such extremes to do it, you have to be one seriously disturbed individual. And apparently, that's what all these characters are: ugly and seriously disturbed.

Since Fruit Chan chooses not to go the over-the-top route, and instead handles matters in a quietly revealing fashion, some people might see Dumplings as boring stuff not worthy of its inherently alarming subject matter. However, the lack of "Hey, this is screwed up!" astonishment might also be the film's greatest strength. Instead of a showy journey into madness and human degradation, we get a disturbing and transfixing revelation of ugliness via the pursuit of beauty. This juxtaposition of the beautiful and disgusting is best demonstrated by Christopher Doyle's fantastic cinematography, and is echoed in the glowing radiance of Miriam Yeung's flawless skin. Everything about Dumplings is beautiful and almost otherworldly in presentation, from Mei's dumplings to Ching's dresses to the very color on the walls of Mei's apartment. But beneath it all—or maybe even on the other side of the wall—there's something sick, ugly, and just plain wrong, even if it's never explicitly said. That silent, undefined juxtaposition could mean snores for some people, and lovers of Hong Kong Cinema's Category III glory days might find this film tame by comparison. But for discerning audiences who enjoy a film that slowly but surely crawls beneath your skin, Dumplings could be oddly exhilarating, coldly fascinating, and yet utterly affecting stuff. (Kozo 2004)

Notes: Dumplings has also been screened as a shorter 30-40 minute portion of a larger three story omnibus entitled Three...Extremes. The other two films are Cut, directed by Park Chan-Wook, and Box, directed by Takashi Miike.
Awards: 24th Hong Kong Film Awards
• Winner – Best Supporting Actress (Bai Ling)
• Nomination – Best Supporting Actor (Tony Leung Ka-Fai)
• Nomination – Best Screenplay (Lilian Lee Bik-Wah)
• Nomination – Best Cinematography (Christopher Doyle)
• Nomination – Best Art Direction (Yee Chung-Man, Pater Wong)
41st Golden Horse Awards

• Winner - Best Supporting Actress (Bai Ling)
• Nomination - Best Director (Fruit Chan Gor)
• Nomination - Best Editing (Tin Sam-Fat, Chan Ki-Hop)
• Nomination - Best Make-up and Costume Design (Yee Chung-Man, Pater Wong)
Availability: DVD (Hong Hong)
Region 3 NTSC
Megastar / Media Asia
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese Language Track
Dolby Digital EX 6.1 / DTS ES 6.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Trailers, "Making of" featurette
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images courtesy of Applause Pictures Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen