by Andrew Dowd
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Forget Saw 2 and the rest of the tame, derivative “scary movies” being forced down America’s throat this Halloween. For real terror, the kind that lingers long after October has come and gone, put your money on Three… Extremes, the most chilling and imaginative horror movie of the year. The film is a collection of shorts from three renowned autuers of the East: Takashi Miike of Japan, Chan-wook Park of South Korea, and Fruit Chan of Hong Kong. Gruesome yet intelligent, twisted yet artfully constructed, these tales of murder and madness are a far cry from the safe supernatural scares of Ringu and its imitators. The horror here is grounded almost entirely in reality, in the nightmares of the modern world, and it is thus far more harrowing.
The only real connection between the stories, each of which bares the distinctive mark of its creator, is the manner in which they balance graphic depictions of violence with heavy psychological tension. Yet Three… Extremes feels strangely complete, perhaps because, unlike most anthologies (horror or otherwise), the segments actually seem like they belong together. It is the rare omnibus in which the whole may actually surpass the sum of its parts. Nevertheless, taken as one film or three, this is deeply unsettling stuff.
The first of the episodes, “Dumplings,” is directed by Fruit Chan, who, unlike Park or Miike, has yet to establish himself in the genre. In fact, nothing in the man’s filmography, which consists mainly of small, character-driven comedies and dramas, would lead one to suspect that he could be capable of this. If not the best of the segments, “Dumplings” is certainly the most disturbing and memorable. It stars Miriam Yeung as a woman who is concerned that her husband has lost interest in her, presumably because she has gained a few wrinkles. She seeks out a mysterious woman (Bai Ling) who claims to have a secret recipe for dumplings that help reverse the aging process. The horror of the film lies in the contents of this recipe, and the manner in which they are obtained.
Supposedly based on an actual modern ritual, Chan’s film gracefully walks a line between explicitness and implicitness, providing the audience with just a few brief glimpses of what actually happens in Ling’s kitchen. These images are indeed shocking, but what we see ultimately proves to be far less unpleasant than what we hear. It is the filmmaker’s masterful use of absolutely revolting sound effects that will truly get under your skin.
But the short is far more than just a one-note gross-out. It’s a thematically rich piece that deals with, with among other issues, the impossibly high standards of beauty today, and how far some are willing to go to meet them. Expertly shot by Christopher Doyle (quite possibly the best cinematographer working today) and finely acted by a small cast, “Dumplings” suffers only from a somewhat hasty and nonsensical ending, which can probably be attributed largely to the fact that it is an abbreviated version of a feature-length film.
The second segment, “Cut,” is easily the weakest of the three. It is directed by Chan-wook Park, the man responsible for two of this year’s most excessively violent imports, Oldboy and Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance. His contribution to Three… Extremes is similarly graphic, an over-the-top torture-fest partially redeemed by its self-reflexivity. Beginning with a long, showy tracking shot that eventually pulls the rug out from under the audience, “Cut” concerns a hotshot filmmaker (Byung-hun Lee) whose home is invaded by an obsessive psychopath (Won-Hee Lin). This giddy and verbose maniac forces his captive to play sadistic games and make quick moral judgments in order to save his wife (Hye-jeong Kang), a famous musician whose fingers the stranger has threatened to remove.
A fairly conventional game of cat and mouse, Park’s segment is indebted to any number of flashy American thrillers about self-righteous serial killers and their diabolical schemes. The director wallows in the suffering he inflicts on his characters, giving his vicious, music video aesthetic a real work out. But in spite of its shortcomings, “Cut” is still moderately effective. Set almost entirely in one room, the short makes good use of its boundaries, establishing Park’s superior sense of spatial blocking. And while the director is still clearly enamored with stylized violence, the film exists largely as a critique of this obsession, with the story’s “hero” a stand in for the filmmaker himself. One could argue that this is just Park having his cake and eating it too, but it’s still interesting to see this much ballyhooed purveyor of carnage deconstruct his own style and image.
If there is any director working today more sadistic and nihilistic than Park, it is Takashi Miike, who is responsible for “Box,” the last of the stories in Three… Extremes. The gleefully depraved mind behind such splatter epics as Ichi the Killer and Dead or Alive, Miike has built a career out of pushing the absolute limits of cinematic ultra-violence. The majority of his films are weightless exercises in style over content, masturbatory gun and knife fantasies devoid of meaning or purpose. But this extreme-for-extreme’s-sake visionary is also a greatly talented craftsman, and it should not be forgotten that he is responsible for one of the best genre films of the last ten years, that exhilarating booby-trap of a thriller, Audition. Lulling the viewer into a false sense of security, the movie is so deceptively gentle and calm throughout that the horrific climax plays like the most shocking of developments, a cruel twist of Hitchcockian proportions.
Given Miike’s penchant for wanton bloodshed, it is remarkable that “Box” is the most restrained and contemplative of the three shorts. A quiet and poetic psychological thriller, it plays kind of like Audition but without the brutal payoff. A young woman keeps having reoccurring nightmares about a twin sister she used to have, and the life they shared as contortionists at a traveling sideshow. Using reoccurring images and symbols to create an atmosphere of dreamy menace, Miike stages this meditation on memory not as a mystery but as a surreal mood piece. Tension is built through long stretches of disquieting silence and through the gorgeous, winter compositions of head D.P. Kôichi Kawakami. “Box” isn’t so much scary as it is haunting, although it does features the single most frightening shot of the entire anthology, a peek-a-boo moment that shows just enough of an image to allow you to recreate its entirety in your mind. In terms of narrative, the short would be pretty under whelming were it not for its denouement, a surprisingly effective final plot turn.
Beyond their minor individual flaws, all of Three… Extremes’ segments suffer from an over reliance on gimmicky last minute twists, a problem symptomatic of many contemporary thrillers. Then again, Miike’s corker of an ending actually works, and neither of the other two episodes are irreparably damaged by their conclusions. On a whole, this compellingly demented trilogy of terror may represent a new trend in horror movies: both visceral and cerebral, it proves that Grand Guignol theatrics and post-modern psychological depth are not mutually exclusive. If this is the future of the genre—films that appeal to both hardcore fan boys and Art House patrons—then it will be very interesting to see what nightmares are being cooked for next Halloween.
Andrew Dowd is a film critic and writer in Chicago.
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