Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan


Posted by CinemaPsycho on October 28, 2005

Directed by Fruit Chan, Park Chan-Wook, Takashi Miike/Lions Gate – Fortissimo Films

It’s understandable that the recent explosion of Asian horror cinema might be daunting to American newcomers, especially at the video store. Suddenly there are tons of these films out there (so many that even I haven’t seen them all), and for those who haven’t paid much attention to the current boom, it might be intimidating to know where to start.

Three…Extremes is an anthology film that, while being a fascinating and disturbing piece of work in its own right, also serves as a kind of sampler platter for three of the best Asian directors working today. For the price of one ticket, you can check out three very different short films from three different countries. Whether you’re a raving lunatic for Asian cinema or a complete neophyte, this has to be the best bargain in theaters right now.

The first segment, “Dumplings”, is easily the most disturbing of the three, and probably should’ve been saved for last. A brutally visceral sucker punch to the gut, this compact little shocker concerns a rich woman who attempts to stay young by consulting a chef (Bai Ling) who puts a very special ingredient in her dumplings. To reveal any more than that would be a crime, but I will say that the audience I saw the film with was quite audible in its collective disapproval. Which only proves how effective the piece is at being utterly horrifying and borderline distasteful. It’s pretty rare these days that a horror film is able to cross taboo lines that haven’t already been stepped over hundreds of times, but “Dumplings” manages to pull that off. I wasn’t familiar with Chinese director Chan before this, but his work is now a must-see in my book. “Dumplings” caused such a sensation that Chan turned it into a feature film, which apparently will be included on the upcoming Extremes DVD. But the concept works perfectly well as a short film, and is definitely worth seeing in its own right – provided that you have a strong stomach and aren’t easily offended.

“Cut”, the second short, is by Korean sensation Chan-Wook (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) and it serves more as an exercise in self-reflexive cinema than as a genuinely unsettling portrayal. It’s about a famous horror director who builds a set for his latest film that resembles his own house, only to find that a psychotic extra has imprisoned him and his wife in it. It’s a potentially solid idea, but unfortunately it’s not as strongly written as it could have been, featuring a villain with only vague motivations and an unclear plan that seems to change on a whim, which undercuts the suspense somewhat. Not to mention a twist ending that comes out of nowhere and makes everything that preceded it pointless. Still, “Cut” is worth a look in spite of its structural flaws, due mainly to Chan-Wook’s flamboyant visual style and the outrageousness of its premise.

The biggest surprise of the trio is “Box”, in which Japanese cult auteur Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer, Gozu) tries his hand at the most shocking move of his career: subtlety. You almost wouldn’t know this was a Miike film; his usual preoccupations with bodily functions, graphic violence and general chaos are completely missing here, replaced by an unexpected artful stylishness worthy of the likes of David Lynch, Fellini or even (dare I say it?) Ingmar Bergman. The short concerns a young woman suffering from disturbing dreams related to her childhood as a circus performer. While not exactly representative of Miike’s films as a whole (one might wonder if he and Chan-Wook hadn’t traded scripts before shooting), it’s fascinating to see that he’s capable of such a serious-minded and downright classy piece of work.

Taken as a whole, Three…Extremes can best be seen as an inviting cross-section of the current Asian horror scene, with something for diehards and newcomers alike. Whatever your particular taste in bizarre cinema may be, there’s something here worth exploring. And even though many fans may have already picked it up on an import DVD, this is still the one horror show in theaters this Halloween where you really can’t go wrong. If there are more entries in this series to come (as has been rumored), let’s look forward to seeing them. At a time when lame theatrics like those in the godawful Fog remake are considered passably scary, this is the real stuff.

***1/2 10/28/05

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