Did you know Asian horror is hot? Actually, its sort of tapering off a bit, but horror, in general, everywhere, had hit a pretty serious slump in the 90's until some spooky ghosties and meditative horror films began to pop up out of Asia and spawn some influence on the international cinema scene.
2004's Three... Extremes is an anthology horror film, a sequel of sorts to 2002's Three. The basic premise behind both films was to get three Asian directors and give them 40 or so minutes to do a short horror film. What makes Three... Extremes noteworthy is the talent involved, Japan's prolific gonzo, arthouse and exploitation madman Takashi Miike (Dead or Alive, Audition), Korea's revenge film critical darling Park Chan-wook (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy,), and Hong Kong's lesser known, indie fare leaning Fruit Chan (Little Cheung, The Long Summer).
We start with Fruit Chan's segment ‟Dumplings.‟ Miss Li (Miriam Yueng, Anna in Kung Fu-Land) is a former tv star with her golden days of youth behind her. Fearing she will lose her philandering husband (Tony Lueng Ka-fai, Election) to a younger woman, Miss Li seeks out Aunt Mei (Bai Ling, Red Corner), an inner city herbalist and cook, who is said to have a secret dish that will restore a persons vitality and youth. Aunt Mei's not so secret ingredient is fetus meat, and Miss Li is more than willing to digest the unseemly but savory dishes in order to reap their benefits. But, after stepping up the dishes a notch with ‟fresher‟ meat, Miss Li begins to suffer from some side effects.
‟Dumplings‟ is horrific in a queasy way, not so much a scare piece as it is an unsettling bit of socially conscious commentary. The quest for youth has long been a subject of horror tales. What makes this one especially poignant are the hinted facts from Chinese history, a place where population control has lead to some terrible actions. Being informed with that kind of unsettling info, it makes watching affluent ladies chow down on such dishes more than a little stomach churning and, in spite of the fantasy aspects, oddly conceivable.
I'm not very familiar with Fruit Chan's films and what I've seen did not prepare me for this polished, subtle horror. Thanks to ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle, it certainly doesn't look like Fruit Chan's other work which has a more rough, verite feel. The performances are across the board great, especially, to my shock, Bai Ling. It is a very delicate horror, admirable in simple ways like how Miss Li is already beautiful for her age and her rejuvenation is one that is more ephemeral. While you might not jump out of your seat or feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, the final scene is guaranteed to have viewers squirming in their seats.
Next up is Korea's hottest director Park Chan-wook with ‟Cut.‟ A director (Lee Byung-hun, A Bittersweet Life) is abducted by a disgruntled and highly disturbed movie extra (Lim Won-hie, Slimido). The director is knocked unconscious and wakes up to find himself bound and on the set of his latest movie. The director's wife is tied up to an elaborate series of ropes with her fingers glued to the keys of a piano. A kid is also in the room, tied up on a coach. The extra demands that the director with a golden life should either admit to a great sin or commit one (like strangling the kid). For every five minutes that the director does not, the extra will take one of his wife's fingers.
The concept is pretty simple. An innocent, good man, held captive and tortured purely because of his goodness. His tormentor, the extra, resents that the director is everything he is not, attractive, wealthy, respected, and throughout the segment he tries to pain the director into lowering himself to a more debauched level. The scenario, the concept wether a good man will commit a sinful act in order to save a loved one, is muddled at its core. And any disbelief you might have is only multiplied ‟Cut's‟ campy tone.
This, by far, was my biggest disappointment. Park's brilliance as a director is his ability to wrangle genuine emotion out of films that exist on a near fantasy level. He's a writer/director who can veer from the comic bookishly ostentatious to the operatically tragic. Well, here he gets the technical and the blackly comic moments right, but ‟Cut‟ is too fabricated. The short is wrapped in so much facade, it is more conceptual than emotional. The idea just didn't click with me and, despite the segements razzle dazzle, I never felt remotely engaged in the story.
Finally, we come to Japan's cinema workhorse Takashi Miike who closes the feature with ‟Box.‟ A novelist Kyoko (Kyôko Hasegawa) is being haunted by visions of her past. As a child she was a circus contortionist and performed with her twin sister, Shoko. In the eyes of their father?/guardian? (Atsuro Watabe, Inugami) Kyoko is in the shadow of her more talented sister who gets all the affection (incestuous?) and praise. Kyoko played a prank which went awry and accidentally killed her sister. It is a tragedy which increasingly affected Kyoko's mental state, driving her to delusions, and she is forced to confront her guilt over her past mistake. Sort of...
I try to get my hands on any Miike film I come across, and he's made tons of films, so I think I can confidently say there are (with some variation and blending) four kinds of Takashi Miike movies- the off the wall, exploitation Miike of Fudoh and City of Lost Souls, the drama Miike of The Bird People of China and Young Thugs: Nostalgia, the surreal Miike of Gozu and Visitor Q, and the commercial Miike of One Missed Call and The Great Yokai War. You'd think for this kind of high profile ensemble piece, the commercial Miike or the exploitation Miike would be best suited. But, being unpredictable and serving no ones whim but his own, for Three... Extremes we get the surreal Miike.
Miike's phantasmagorical segment is going to be the one that is the most difficult for your average viewer to penetrate. ‟Box's‟ final moments lead to a twist which puts the entire short in a different light, done not only as an explanation but a device to raise more questions (trust me that will make sense when you watch it). Some viewers will go, ‟Ah-ha,‟ others will go, ‟What the fuck?‟ or some combination of the two. I thought it was beautiful and had a command of the surreal that I love. Purposefully slow and haunting, the segment is, without giving too much away, a fevered dream within a dream. Those who like their horror faster paced and more linear will be seriously turned off, for the rest, Miike's dream logic short may be the most rewarding and conceptually brave of the bunch.
While at its best Three... Extremes is a bit of a mixed bag, it does showcase the best of Asian horror sensibilities, the need to probe and mine psychological fears rooted in the intangibles of things like age and culture, fame and morality, jealousy and guilt. It is a different side of horror, one beyond the visceral shudder of a knife wielding maniac, something deeper, more haunting, and less corporal.
The DVD: Lions Gate
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Three segments. Three wonderful visual designs. From the painterly ‟Box,‟ to the astute ‟Cut,‟ to Christopher Doyle's trademark tasty lush colors and shallow soft focus in ‟Dumplings.‟ All of the segments look fantastic, and Doyle alone already has his spot in the cinematographers hall of fame due to his work with Wong Kar Wai. The transfers appear clean, very sharp, with deep black levels, and vibrant hues. The only fault I could find was some minor edge enhancement which may not even be noticeable on low end systems.
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 channels. Cantonese, Korean, and Japanese language. Optional English or Spanish subtitles. The lack of DTS is a little discouraging; however the 5.1 and 2.0 tracks do just fine with full stereo surround mixes. The scoring for each segment is pretty subtle, the segments either move quickly or rely on space and silence, so the scoring is mainly there as a punctuation or bridge. In terms of atmospherics, each one is a winner, be it the sickening sounds of mastication, a fingers being lobbed off, or the creaking of an ornate box opening up.
Extras: On the main disc, you have optional commentary for ‟Box‟ by director Takashi Miike. This one takes awhile to get going. Miike points out that the story was meant to rely on silences and he, at first, seems reticent to talk over his images. But, stuck with it, and he eventually becomes a little more forthcoming , discussing the production, working with the actors, the writing process, the visual design, as well as the actual story particulars (which may help with viewer's confusion over the segments abstract nature).
Disc Two contains a whopper of an extra, a feature length, 90 min version of ‟Dumplings.‟ Now this is extremely neat. While the story essentially remains the same and the segment worked fine as a short, how it plays as a feature offers a different perspective and significantly fleshes out the characters. Strangely when I watched the short version in the film, I couldn't imagine it needing to be any longer. But after watching the feature version, I cannot imagine it any other way. It works quite well as a full movie, something I doubt would apply to the other two segments. The film provides a slightly different spin and a different ending, more backstory with Aunt Mei, a great monologue about the history of cannibalism in China, and a deeper look into the husband and his affair.
In addition, the second disc has a Making of ‟Dumplings‟ featurette (14:40) that is a concise and informative look at the film. Oh yeah, you also get some Lion's Gate trailers for a bunch of direct-to-dvd horror flicks.
Conclusion: An interesting anthology horror film. Obviously like all anthology films, movie fans are going to prefer certain stories more than others, that is the bane of all anthologies. Three... Extremes was helmed by three talented directors, two of which are already cemented as masters, showcasing their skills in a decidedly art house horror vein. The disc is great, very good transfers. As an extra, you get an entire movie, which is damn nice no matter how you slice it.
Now, in a final note, as much as I'd like to give Lions Gate nothing but praise for a fine horror release, I have to mention that they are also releasing the film that proceeded this one, Three which had segments from Hong Kong's Peter Chan, Thailand's Nonzee Nimibutr, and Korea's Kim Ji-woon. It is scheduled for DVD release on April 25th, as Three... Extremes 2. Yep, another weird case of a US company and their wacky ideas at marketing. It is beyond me why these kind of decisions get made, but at least you've got the heads up.