Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Three ... Extremes

America and England are responsible for most of the anthology movies I'm familiar with, but Three ... Extremes (2004) is an East Asian production from three different directors: Fruit Chan of Hong Kong, Park Chan-wook of South Korea, and Takashi Miike of Japan. Each one of these directors directs a 40-minute segment.

Chan starts things off with "Dumplings," the tale of an aging ex-actress who visits a woman who makes dumplings that can restore her youth, but they are made with a gruesome ingredient. In "Cut," by Park, a successful film director and his wife are kidnapped by an extra from his movies and tortured mentally and physically, respectively. With the finale "Box," Miike tells the story of a woman who is haunted by nightmares of being buried in a box in the snow.

Unlike so many mediocre anthologies, in which the individual episodes are usually one-note "just desserts" stories with endings telegraphed as soon as you know the set up, the stories in Three ... Extremes are presented and treated as complete films in their own right, with more vivid characterization, unexpected plot developments, multiple locations, and complex camera setups.

With a title like Three ... Extremes, the movie is expectedly violent and button-pushing. With directors with these track records between them (Oldboy, Audition, etc.), all three segments address and depict taboo subject matter including and not limited to child murder, incest, torture, mutilation, cannibalism, and abortion, and some of these overlap. The movie also has its fair share of blood and guts. This is a challenging movie to watch, not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, but if you have an iron constitution, you'll be able see absolutely exemplary filmmaking, craftsmanship, and style in the service of these stories. Each entry showcases its director's personality and sensibilities.

"Dumplings" wastes little time revealing what the secret ingredient in its eponymous dish is: aborted fetuses. That's not a spoiler because it's only a couple of minutes in, and Chan gives a lot of extreme closeups of the cooking process, especially the chopping. He also includes sickening sound effects of chewing; the closeup of a woman eating has never been so ominous or disturbing.

Ultimately, "Dumplings" shows the lengths people will go to feed their vanity, clinging to their youth and beauty no matter the cost. Mrs. Lee (Miriam Yung) descends into perverse behavior to get her fix of the dumplings. Chan's entry is very claustrophobic as he deploys tight framing: tiny apartments, cramped spaces, and even a fancy dinner party is limited because we can only see through a narrow doorway.  Also Bai Ling as "Aunt" Mei, the woman who makes the dumplings, gives a wonderfully wicked performance.

In his entry, Park displays his black sense of humor, opening with a vampire feeding on a victim, talking to someone on the phone and asking if that person minds "frozen leftovers." But then the film pulls back, to reveal that what we've been watching is a movie within a movie. It doesn't really have anything to do with the rest of the story, but it's pretty funny. The meat of this entry is the hostage situation. Im Won-hee is the extra, and he's nothing sort of outrageous: re-enacting his bit parts as a coal miner, soldier, and dancer to get the director (Lee Byung-hun) to remember him. It's kind of funny but also a reminder that he's a total madman. And it's not like he's out for revenge; he calls the director a nice guy who treated him well.

Unlike Chan, Park uses wider frames and longer takes to showcase his rather ornate sets, so we get to see all the elements and characters simultaneously, and the result is a surreal, almost blackly comical effect. Park has been compared to Tarantino for his violent, sly style, and the comparison is valid here. The extra forces the director to make a moral choice: murder a child or watch as his wife's (Kang Hye-jung) fingers are chopped off. It's a sadistic conundrum, and the image of the wife, tied up like a marionette at a piano, is one of the film's most memorable. The extra seeks to corrupt the director, tear away his polite and successful exterior to expose the evil he suspects is there.

For the final piece of the film, Miike doesn't pile on the queasy effect like his compatriots, instead ending the film on a quieter, somber, and sad meditation on guilt and regret.  Most if not all of this segment is without music, and there's little dialogue as Kyoko (Kyoko Hasegawa) walks alone in a field of snow or against a blank wall as Miike flashes back to show her childhood as a circus dancer with her twin sister Shoko and reveals how shame and jealousy led to a tragic accident. The accident, save for some dialogue, is completely quiet, no sound effects, until the flames ignite, and the rush of the fire is like a punch to the face.

I had to watch "Cut" twice just to see if I could make more sense of it, but I'm still at a loss to explain everything. It's very surreal, almost dreamlike, and you can't be sure if what you're watching is really happening, a memory of what happened, a dream, or something else. There are abstract images that don't seem to belong to the narrative but are vivid and memorable, especially the conjoined dancers. While there are some shocking things in it and other horrible things implied, it feels less like a horror piece than the other two. It's a curious segment to end the movie on and might require more patience than fortitude, but it is thought provoking and unconventional.

No comments:

Post a Comment