The Asian horror vogue has already worn off, thanks to a procession of American remakes and a lack of variety in the genre itself. Three… Extremes, however, confounds expectations. Not only does each of the three horror vignettes contain more surprises than most full-length features, but unlike most filmic anthologies, it has no weak links.
Fruit Chan’s Dumplings focuses on the act of eating. Over-the-hill actress Qing Li (Miriam Yeung) visits the Shenzhen equivalent of a witch doctor, the mysterious Aunt Mei (Bai Ling), to get an anti-aging supplement in the form of magical dumplings. The revelation of the all-too-rich special ingredient leads to some very unsettling psychological changes in Qing Li, which are slowly reflected on her body. The most satisfying of the three pieces, Dumplings is also the least ambitious. Cut down from a feature-length film, it makes for a darkly seductive look at a woman’s efforts to hang on to her beauty, her appetites going from merely pathetic to the stuff of horror. Remarkably, the lightness of Chan’s direction (coupled with Christopher Doyle’s always elegant cinematography) makes the change seem almost natural.
Cut, the middle chapter, is written and directed by Park Chanwook, the Korean filmmaker behind the cult hits Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. The story concerns a well-known film director (Byung-hun Lee) and his pianist wife (Hye-jeong Kang), as they endure agonizing physical and psychological abuse at the hands of a disgruntled extra (Won-hie Lim). Park’s trademark slick, almost distractingly inventive camerawork (delirious tracking shots trading off with jittery handheld close-ups) gives the proceedings a madcap intensity, and the short format serves his directorial ADD well, even as he splices together a number of genres (low comedy, musicals, splatter).
It’s no surprise that Park takes the body horror theme to its most obvious “extreme”: torture. Angry that the director is a “good man,” the extra threatens to chop off one of the wife’s fingers every five minutes, until the director kills a young girl tied up in a corner of the room. Toying with the director’s moral sensibility, the extra destroys his dignity and steals his power. The extra even stages the abuse on a film set mock-up of the director’s home, where he can adjust music and lighting to dramatic effect. Cut at times plays like a smarter, more chaotic version of Saw. It includes many twists before the denouement, though by then the initially tight narrative has spiraled into near incoherence. The point, however, is unmistakable: we are all directed.
The third and most perplexing entry is Takashi Miike’s Box. While his chief claim to fame has been the depths of depravity to which his films sometimes sink (Ichi the Killer being a prime example), Miike is also a consummate craftsman. This short turns out to be the least overtly “extreme” chapter, but it is also the creepiest. It mixes familiar J-horror techniques (long takes, eerie noises, silence) with surreal imagery that recalls the work of David Lynch.
The story unfolds in fits and starts, like a dream constantly interrupted, every detail part of an elaborate allegory. Novelist Kyoko (Kyoko Hasegawa) is troubled by nightmares that may or may not relate to her past. A massive tree, snow-covered plain, and lone circus tent haunt her. Inside the tent, a young Kyoko and her sister Shoko perform contortionist acrobatic stunts under the direction of their stepfather (Atsuro Watabe). Like tiny dolls, they can collapse to fit into small boxes. But Kyoko, jealous of their stepfather’s (vaguely incestuous) attention to her sister, plots the girl’s demise. In her waking life, her editor is also played by Watabe (though their personalities couldn’t be more different), blurring its distinction from her dreams. The film conveys a disturbing sexual subtext, capped off by a jaw-dropping final shot that reveals just how closely Kyoko and her sister are related.
While none of the three pieces in Three… Extremes is directly connected to the others, they do create a thematic coherence. In each, psychological traumas are expressed on bodies. In exploring the fragile boundary between mental and our physical states, the film gives its grisly forays into the “extreme” greater resonance than the sensational title might suggest. It’s a wonderfully unpleasant reminder of the deep, dark places that intelligent horror can go, places where even the most splatter-happy mainstream “thrillers” fear to tread.