Director: Fruit Chan
Release date: 2004
A little while ago we looked at the anthology film Three Extremes and specifically I looked at the segment Dumplings under ‘Vamp or Not?’
I decided that the segment was a variant of the vampire genre; specifically I likened it to a variant of the Báthory story – a human’s search for eternal youth leading them to extremes. I mentioned at the end of the article that a feature length version of the story had been produced and this is said film. It is essentially the same story expanded – with one substantial change that, whilst it was a major change for one of the characters, took the story in the same place essentially. As such, much of this write up will be similar to the ‘Vamp or Not?’ as I look to the story.
The story begins with what look likes border control from mainland China into Hong Kong. Mei (Ling Bai) hand her papers over and then puts a lunch pail in a scanner. She returns home and opens the pail. There are fried egg, ham and rice in one layer but, below that, there is another layer with a box. She opens it. To those entirely new to the film it might not be clear what these are – they are foetuses. She eats one raw.
In a poor looking estate an expensive car pulls up and Mrs Li (Miriam Yeung Chin Wah) gets out. She looks for the home of Mai, asking for directions. Eventually she reaches the flat – Mai clearly has been expecting her and remembers her from her previous career as a TV star. Li has come for Mai’s dumplings, reputedly the most expensive. After a discussion about age – Li guesses that Mai is in her thirties at most, but she says she is much older – Mai makes dumplings for the woman.
It is clear that Li was looking for a way to look younger but it is also clear that she knows what she is eating – though Mai keeps her out of the kitchen. Her hesitance leads her to spit up the first dumpling (Mai places it in the soil of a plotted plant – it will bloom much better). The look of disgust on her face is palpable but she eats them anyway – Mai telling her that she mustn’t think of what it was.
A man swims, it is Mr Li (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and one difference between this and the short is we see much more of him. He and his wife are living in a hotel as their home is renovated. After the swim a masseuse (Pauline Lau) is working on him and he is coming on to her. During this section he eats a balut – an Asian delicacy, the balut is a fertilized duck or chicken egg with a nearly developed embryo inside, which is boiled and is said to offer energy and sexual potency. The juxtaposition of this with the subject of the film offers an obvious simile. From their room Mrs Li watches her husband’s antics.
We see Mei in a hospital – the place where she buys her ingredients. The nurse tells Mei that security has been increased and there will be no more for two weeks. As they talk we discover that Mei had been a doctor on the mainland, one who specialised in abortion and, due to the Chinese one child policy, she had performed upwards of 30,000 abortions in ten years. She split up with her husband but they never had kids – he believed that after performing so many abortions her child would be cursed.
Mrs Li wants a faster treatment and is told that the most potent are 5 to 6 months old – third trimester foetus are too tough. We see her in multiple shots, eating the dumplings and at first she is disgusted by what she eats – Mei brings her a raw foetus and she can’t look at it – but eventually she becomes more and more nonchalant about her diet. We also see that Mr Li has an affair with the masseuse and goes ‘away’ (actually to another room in the hotel) with her rather than spend his 15th anniversary with his wife.
Mei is approached by a mother (So-Fun Wong) whose 15 year old daughter, Kate (Miki Yeung), is pregnant. She asks for Mei’s help, who suggests going to a certain hospital where the abortion would be legal but they can’t afford to (presumably it was on the Chinese mainland). Mei actually seems reluctant to help, unlike the short where it goes straight to the abortion, even when she hears that the child was fathered by Kate’s father. Eventually, however, she does help. Before then we see Mei and Mrs Li go to Mrs Li’s home and Mrs Li finding some eggs – presumably for balut. Angry at her husband she smashes them and a live chick emerges from one of the eggs. She squashes it with her foot.
Following Kate’s abortion, Mei prepares more dumplings. However Mrs Li peeks in the kitchen, sees the foetus that is rather well developed and runs in horror. She gets onto the streets, heaves and then, with shaky legs, returns to the flat. Once there she gathers her courage, examines the foetus and eats the resultant dumplings. To me this indicated the final step across the morality border – she had tried to ignore what she was eating but now she had actively seen and it was at a stage where it was recognisably a human baby. There was no more pretence in Mrs Li’s habits.
The film then follows her reconciliation with her husband, her negative reaction to the diet (put down as nerves by her doctor), which led to a rash on her neck and hands that smelt like fish, and Kate’s death as she suffered complications from her procedure. I said this differs from the short and it is in two main ways hereon in - one being a change from the original and one being a thread unseen in the original. For the unseen thread, Mr Li finds out about the dumplings, wants them himself and embarks on an affair with Mei and, for the changed aspect, Mrs Li does not become pregnant – though the masseuse does.
There is a shot towards the end, when Mei has done a runner, that people have suggested indicates she has become older. It is likely that she is not on her diet any more but I couldn’t for certain tell you if that was the aim of the shot or if it just showed her living on the streets – the shot was too distant. We do discover – during her affair with Mr Li – that she is actually 64 years old. She also, at one point, mentions staying young forever.
The film is gorgeously shot (even if the subject matter of the photography is somewhat gruesome) and, for the most part, runs well as a feature. There is one moment when Mrs Li is in Mei’s flat that is very badly edited and her seated position changes in frame but that was a one off event. Later it might appear that Mr Li is switching seats in shot but it seemed more that we were in a sequence of intercut scenes set at different times and the cuts were deliberate. The soundtrack fits rather well and hits a quite industrial level at times, becoming almost whimsical at others.
All in all a fascinating, beautiful film. Some might complain that there is no real conclusion but it fit with the tone of the film. 7 out of 10.
The imdb page is here.
Monday, September 28, 2009
Director: Fruit Chan