With the Korean film Oldboy having received the dubious distinction of being remade in both Hollywood (legally – Justin Lin is directing) and Bollywood (illegally – Sanjay Gupta is ripping it as Zinda) and a slew of other films attaining cult status and Hollywood interest, East Asian horror is a big global deal. Three Extremes offers an opportunity to sample some of its leading practitioners, serving up a smorgasbord of three horror shorts:
Dumplings (dir Fruit Chan, Hong Kong 2004): An ex Hong Kong soap star comes across a purveyor of dumplings that promise youthful rejuvenation. But can she stomach the secret ingredient?
Cut (dir Park Chan-Wook, Korea 2004): A horror movie director comes home one night to find an unexpected visitor who proceeds to stage his own night of terror featuring the director and his wife.
Box (dir Takashi Miike, Japan 2004): An author dreams of being buried alive in a box while she suffocates inside covered in a plastic sheet. Her dream is rooted in her childhood as a contortionist when she competed with her sister for the attentions of a magician.
Of the three shorts, Dumplings stands out the most. There were times the women in the audience gasped, so nasty were the horrors implied. There is a lot of blood, particularly later on, but the real effectiveness of this piece lies in the sound design and Christopher Doyle’s exemplary cinematography. Otherworldy machinery squeak menacingly in the background while we hear every crunchy bite of dumpling, up close and personal. Additionally, the images on the screen pack a mean punch: an extreme close up of a cleaver knife chopping something unidentifiable but grisly; a woman’s neck; clouds of blood slowly swirling in water.
The main value of Cut, the second entry, lies in the challenge the director, Chan-Wook Park, seems to throw at the audience: can he possibly top himself with what’s coming next? The answer is yes. Park takes no prisoners – gouts of blood are shed, digits cleaved, a young kid is nearly strangled (unthinkable in Hollywood) and our jaw drops further and further until the last, terrible, denouement. Will the lead character, the horror movie director, and his wife escape alive? We cannot be sure and this rivets us to the screen. As in Oldboy, revenge is the central motif. But while the film develops many other themes that allow it to leap over logical discrepancies, Cut is too brief and grandiose for any real suspension of disbelief.
Box is the most restrained of the trio, preferring to chill rather than shock. Hence, it doesn’t have the same sledgehammer effect. While it plays effectively with the line separating dreams and reality, the final payoff is not as satisfying as the others. But only by comparison!
One interesting subtext that seems to flow through all three shorts, whether directly implied or otherwise, is the inequalities between the sexes:
In Dumplings, we see the ex soap opera actress going to extreme lengths to preserve her looks. Her reasoning is simple. She wants to hold on to her husband, a wealthy man who a) is older than her and b) already has a mistress. Thus she has no qualms about downing the dumplings despite their dubious contents. The most desirable secret ingredient is actually one of the bitter ironies of this short and that is what makes it so effective. In Cut, the madman holding the horror movie director and his wife hostage is finally dispatched by the wife. But, in a stunning reversal, the director is so shamed at having being humiliated in front of his wife, he strangles her. And finally, in Box, two young girls compete, perhaps fatally, for the attentions of an older man.
Inasmuch as films are windows into different worlds, these films raise disturbing questions about the societies they portray and the roles of women therein.
This article originally appeared at Desicritics.org, a Blogcritics.org network site, providing news and information on media, culture, politics, sports, etc. with a South Asian focus. Visit Desicritics.org for more fine stuff.