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Overall Rating
4.03

Awesome: 27.59%
Worth A Look48.28%
Average: 24.14%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 0%

4 reviews, 5 user ratings



Three...Extremes
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by Jay Seaver

"Strong stuff, but well worth it."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2005 BOSTON FANTASTIC FILM FESTIVAL: Two of the three directors of horror anthology "Three...Extremes" are relatively well known in the American art-house/cult scene: Takashi Miike has become almost synonymous with Japanese "extreme" cinema with his prodigious output and willingness to put just about anything on screen to shock and disturb the audience; Park Chan-wook has gained critical acclaim for his fantastic "JSA" and his so-called "vengeance trilogy". As good as their segments are, though, it is the lesser-known Fruit Chan whose film will likely leave the strongest impression.

That film, "Dumplings", leads off the package, and if you can make it through this one, you probably won't have a whole lot of trouble with the other two. During the screening's introduction, we were told that someone passed out during this film's screening at Fantasia. My experience wasn't that extreme, but right around when it first became obvious what was going on, I noticed I was reacting differently than I do to most "horror" movies; rather than twisting my face and looking away, I was hunkering forward, because I may need to purge my stomach contents soon and wouldn't want to get that on the people sitting next to me. I didn't actually throw up, but the last time I movie hit me like that was with Irreversible. That feeling is real horror, not mere fear or disdain.

Working from a script by Lilian Lee, Fruit Chan's segment presents us with Mrs. Lee (Miriam Yeung), a one-time actress who is referred to "Aunt Mei" (Bai Ling), a youthful woman whose expensive (and disturbingly crunchy) dumplings have rejuvenating powers. We are not initially told what the secret ingredient is, although the film makes no attempt to conceal it (I will simply say that it is rather worse than the blood of virgins). What is disturbing about this film is not finding out what gives the dumplings their power, but what comes after: The initial revelation is dizzying, but what's shocking is that there's still farther to fall; by the end of the movie, we'll have to re-think our definition of "unthinkable". And yet, it remains compelling viewing, not simply because the horrible is fascinating, but because Lee's descent and acceptance of it are frighteningly believable. To regain one's youth is a universal desire, there's a metaphoric and even pseudo-scientific logic to the method, and the performances by Bail Ling and Miriam Yeung are top-notch.

There is a feature-length version of this movie as well, but from what information I can gather, I expect this compacted version works better. There are areas that could certainly expanded upon in a feature - Mei's background, Mrs. Lee's marriage (to Tony Ka Fai Leung), how the police wind up investigating Mei, leaving Mrs. Lee on her own - but this compact version is complete; I don't know that making "Dumplings" longer would necessarily make it richer. I certainly wouldn't complain about seeing more of Christopher Doyle's exquisite cinematography (no-one shoots Hong Kong better), but I think we get just enough of Mei's frightening cheeriness and Mrs. Lee's terrible chewing - great sound work, by the way - to fill our nightmares, and more might dull the impact.

After "Dumplings", Park Chan-wook's switch to relatively simple bloodletting in "Cut" is something of a relief. The title has a double meaning: After a delightfully garish fake beginning involving a beautiful vampiress, we find ourselves on a movie set, the domain of director Ryu (Lee Byung-hun). A decent, good-natured fellow, he gives friendly advice to one of the actors and offers a member of the crew a ride home. We've barely got time to notice how much his house served as the model for his film's set before he's knocked unconscious. When he awakes, he has been tied up by frustrated extra Ching (Lim Won-hie), who offers him a terrible choice - either strangle a random girl he picked up off the streets, or watch helplessly as Ching cuts a finger off Ryu's pianist wife (Kang Hye-jeong) for every five minutes Ryu refuses.

Where Chan couched his film in the ordinary, Park runs wild, Grand Guignol stylings, not just setting much of the action on a movie set, but working to make the action even more unreal - Mrs. Ryu is bound before the piano by dozens of cords tied to the ceiling, holding her in a sitting position despite the lack of a bench and creating a constant visual reminder of her helplessness. Cinematographer Jeong Jeong-hun, keeps his camera in motion, even referencing Panic Room during one pull-back shot. Ching actually starts dancing at one point, and Lim plays him as simply being completely and utterly nuts, nursing a grudge against Ryu for reasons that simply don't compute to sane men. Its believability is bolstered because the niceness somehow uncorrupted by privilege and success that Lee projects as Ryu seems so genuine that we believe it would, in fact, drive someone like Ching batty.

Park doesn't just make a gory comedy, though - there's plenty of menace and tension to the story. The short mostly takes place in real time, giving the audience a perfect idea of just how long and how short five minutes can be. As usually happens, ugly truths rear their heads and the darker sides of good people's natures are exposed. The gruesome climax is completely satisfying, although what comes after is a bit of a let-down - the moment's not going to get more exciting, and while the final minutes may be suitably dark, they're not the terrible and logical next step after all that we've seen that the ending of "Dumplings" is.

Despite having made much of his reputation on the gore and excess of Ichi the Killer and Dead or Alive, Takashi Miike doesn't try to one-up Park, but instead steps back to deliver a chillingly restrained story in "Box". Bun Saikou's story presents us with Kyoko (Kyoko Hasegawa), a pretty, successful writer who lives alone and isolated, her only visitor her editor (Atsuro Watabe). She is also haunted, both by a ghostly little girl and dreams of her childhood, when she and her twin sister Shoko (Mai and Yuu Suzuki) performed as part of an act with their magician stepfather (Watabe again), or at least did until Kyoko's jealousy led to tragedy.

Most, if not all, of "Box" is set in the winter, and the white snow blankets the screen, and Kyoko's pale blue dress is an icy color, as well. In the flashbacks, the stepfather's magic acts are performed in total silence without even an underscore; combined with the scant few words he has for his daughters (praise for Shoko, quiet exhortations to try harder for Kyoko), it's a chilling minimalism. We easily understand Kyoko's powerful need for his love, and when she goes to somewhat frightening lengths to feel it, we believe in her desperation and that she truly means no harm.

Miike and Saiku have a little fun playing with the story's title - many boxes show up during the course of the film - the one being buried in Kyoko's dream, the gift given to her by her editor, the ones the girls disappear from during the signature magic trick, and even the elevator in Kyoko's building might qualify. There's enough so that the audience is never sure exactly which is the box, which keeps us on pins and needles all the way through. That's why, unfortunately, the ending is rather a let-down; while there are bits earlier in the short that may be considered foreshadowing, the ultimate revelation has little to do with what has come before and does not involve a box. It just seems thrown in for shock value, but sadly yields more confusion than fear.

And yet, even if "Box" has a weak ending, everything leading up to it is tense and mysterious. One might, perhaps, consider re-arranging the stories, switching "Box" and "Dumplings" so that the best story with the strongest ending is the last thing to hit the audience, leaving Park's story where it is as a change of pace between the two less flashy pieces. Not that this is strictly necessary - all three stories are good enough to overcome small weaknesses.

And "weak" isn't a word that will be much used to describe "Three...Extremes". This is strong, heady stuff - a great sampler of Asian horror, without a creepy ghost-child in sight.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=11290&reviewer=371
originally posted: 10/19/05 10:18:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2005 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Atlanta Film Festival For more in the 2005 Atlanta Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2005 Fantasia Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Boston Fantastic Film Festival For more in the 2005 Boston Fantastic Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2005 Austin Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/19/11 moose rapper Been a fan of Miike and Park for a while, now a potential fan of Firut 4 stars
5/25/07 fools♫gold If you're calm enough to see how different it is: absolute fun (not as good as May). 9.5/10 5 stars
3/06/06 Mushuga See the brilliant Miike short, "Box," and forget the other shitty two. 3 stars
6/30/05 cristeen69 loved the second short dumplings, the third film cut threw me off with the ending 4 stars
6/10/05 K. Sear A great selection of short films by some cutting edge directors. 5 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  28-Oct-2005 (R)
  DVD: 28-Feb-2006

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