The horror anthology: Not an original concept by any stretch of the imagination, but often a solid breeding ground for some of our finest directors. The Asian production Three…Extremes comes two years after what I imagine was a successful enough Three. In 2002 Peter Chan, Kim ji-wun and Nonzee Nimbutr collaborated on an experimental series of short films that dealt with different themes surrounding life, such as fear, isolation and loneliness. The result was something which transcended horror; retaining necessary genre elements, but also imbued them with poignancy and sincerity. The stories in Three…Extremes might not quite reach the schizophrenic quality of Kim Ji-wun’s Memories or the gut wrenching sadness of Peter Chan’s Going Home, but it does offer some new delights for those who enjoyed those shorts, bringing into the fold some very prolific names and some interesting concepts, which more than matches its predecessor in many respects.
Mrs Li (Miriam Yeung) was once a popular television star who gained recognition due to her youthful looks. Now she’s married to a wealthy man (Tony Leung Ka Fai), but as of late their marriage has been hitting a lull patch. Li’s husband has been cheating on her with a young woman, leaving her with excuses and plenty of cash to go out and buy whatever she likes. In a bid to do something about her life she seeks out a well respected “doctor” who locals refer to as Auntie Mei (Bai Ling) who lives out in the city. Mei specialises in herbal medicine and is renowned for her culinary skills; her dumplings are legendary, and as Li is about to discover they contain properties that can reverse the aging process. Soon enough Mrs Li finds out Mei’s secret ingredient and proceeds to continue indulging in such delights. However, it isn’t long before some side effects take place and Li finds herself heading down a path of no return.
With Dumplings, director Fruit Chan kicks off the anthology, creating a foreboding atmosphere straight away by utilising Kwong Wing Chan’s terrific sound design, replete with chimes and scraping, which digs at the unsettling events that are soon to come. Like a rusty swing the opening segment slowly but steadily moves, before Chan begins to drop a few loose hints as to what’s going on. Unlike a lot of horror films - in particular psychological ones - Dumplings doesn’t save its big twist, it presents it rather early on and when it happens it opens up an area with which the director explores social politics. The main theme of Dumplings is that of the obsession with youth and looking good in a world filled with vanity. It’s something of which has been tackled in South Korean cinema in recent years, but I’m hard pressed to come up with a Hong Kong film that readily applies this aspect to it. In that respect Dumplings does a good job in realistically portraying one’s fears as they age and desperately seek other ways to win back their beauty. Fruit Chan does well to highlight the issues of vanity, naïve-ness and shallowness in regards to a couple of characters, particularly that of Mrs Li and her husband, while Mai displays such a disturbing belief in what she does, and in that sense he creates a different kind of horror - one that all too many people are faced with everyday.
With that said the director doesn’t disappoint us by not presenting a disturbing angle; indeed he does, but it’s one that I shall not spoil for the readers, even though it probably is common knowledge and presents itself so early on. While watching Dumplings it’s easy to compare it to Peter Chan’s Going Home. The apartment block in which most of the film takes place seems to depict the average Hong Kong flat, but with Christopher Doyle’s cinematography (he also worked on Going Home) we’re presented with much of the same pastel shades and tight shots. It’s a steadily paced film and Doyle keeps within that confine with a lingering presence and strong eye for detail; some beautiful compositions with his actors show Doyle’s flattering ability to create gorgeous visuals no matter the situation.
Bail Ling picked up “Best Supporting Actress” for her performance here at the 41st Golden Horse Awards, and deservedly so. She’s a radiant actress who unfortunately is lumbered with something of a bad reputation. There’s no denying her effectiveness here as the ambiguous Auntie Mai; carrying a coy playfulness, exploiting her own sexual prowess and generally having no qualms about what she does. Miriam Yeung is equally effective and has a little more to work with than her co-star. She portrays her character believably by injecting that desperate notion which drives her to take such knowing and drastic measures. Li’s journey isn’t pleasant and in the end it isn’t very fruitful for her either.
Director Ryu Ji-ho (Lee Byung-hun) has just finished a long day filming for his latest movie. Shortly after returning home to his mansion - which looks exactly like the film set - the lights go out and he’s struck on the head. He wakes up the next day on the set of his movie; his hands are bound and around his waste is a bungee cord which extends far back off stage. In front of him his wife (Kang Hye-jeong) sits at a piano, gagged and wired to the spot, with her fingers cruelly glued to the keys by an intruder (Im Won-hee) who quickly enough makes himself known. He explains his reasons for doing what he’s done and he offers Ryu a chance to save himself and his wife. All he has to do is meet his demands, but upon learning what the intruder requests of him he faces an almost impossible decision. Just how far will someone go to protect the one they love?
In a sense Park Chan-wook’s Cut brings with it another revenge motif as he’s so vigorously displayed with his revenge trilogy consisting of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance. That’s not all too surprising given his obsession around that time. While it’s not strictly a revenge thriller it certainly presents it as one side of an argument in a twisted kind of way. Im Won-hee’s intruder character has his reasons, albeit unconventional ones, which makes for an interesting though slightly silly premise. The director, much like Peter Chan, also brings into play a natural commentary, this time providing us with many of the frustrations seen within society today; social standing and human morality plays a large part in Cut and this is where Chan-wook tries valiantly to carry his point across. Of course he does so to a certain extent, and with much visual flair. Cut features an attractive look which is limited to a single space with which he can explore every angle through various tricks.
Naturally the film has its share of shock imagery and cruel torture, both psychical and mental, but it’s also underlined by an exceedingly dark comical tone. One suspects that the director doesn’t take his film entirely seriously and that is more evident upon witnessing the performances from Lee Byung-hun and Lim Won-hee. Byung-hun puts in another fine performance, spending most of the film tied to an elastic band and this sees him break away once more from the romantic genre he’s so often linked to, while Won-hee carries on as usual with his great sense of timing and the ability to perform comedy as straight as possible. But the performances overall carry what is essentially an emotionless production. Although these characters are placed in terrible situations and the director introduces a couple of interesting twists it remains difficult to sympathise with anyone. Cut is a visual treat, lavishly put together but lacking a little soul.
Kyoko (Kyoko Hasegawa) is a successful novelist who has just completed her latest work. For quite some time she’s been experiencing nightmares and reliving past memories of a moment that she can never erase. She was once a child contortionist, along with her sister Shoko and the both of them lived under the roof of their master and guardian (Atsuro Watabe). When Shoko started to receive a lot of attention Kyoko became incessantly jealous and she decided to teach her sister a lesson. Her plans went wrong, however, leaving her to live with the consequences. Now she is tormented by visions of Shoko at her apartment and when an invitation turns up, calling for her to visit the old circus she heads out to confront her past demons.
Takashi Miike presents his effort, which is also the final film in the anthology. As to be expected Box is the most ambiguous film in the collection. It rides on interpretations and not once does it force an explanation upon the viewer, rather it allows them to carefully unravel what they’ve witnessed and reach a conclusion. Miike’s skill is that he can put together films that have seemingly odd narrative structure but then come together during the final moments. As such Box is nothing short of compelling; a thoughtful and tragic piece of work which places the viewer in all kinds of uncomfortable situations. As it works its way through the story Box becomes more unsettling due to its knack of tricking the audience into thinking every conceivable thought. At one point it reaches a stage where one questions its intent and motivations to shock, with images of young girls and grown men which pertains to paedophilia and incest. While Miike tastefully shoots his film with various techniques, including a nice freehand style from time to time, he presses our buttons more than once and with no amount of uncertainty.
Box does indeed look gorgeous. It’s almost sterile to begin with, taking place in an average building in which Kyoko lives in a tidy and almost baron white room. Soon we’re taken on her journey and Miike begins to contrast her daily life with that of the glorious, white snow in which she often frequents and the shot of a lonely tree that signals something inside her. As the storyline opens up he gets more intimate and creates some striking imagery which relates to Kyoko’s past. Miike adds some splendid personal touches to Box, along with some nice fantastical elements; it truly is a thing of beauty that turns around a rather depressing tale in the end, filled with jealousy and poignancy; one that’s helped immeasurably by the lead performances of rising talent Kyoko Hasegawa and the more seasoned Atsuro Watabe in a brilliantly understated turn.
I breathe a sigh of relief as I announce a rarity for Tartan. Three…Extremes is given a loving PAL transfer, which I hope is the start of good things. So, onto the disc.
You’ll notice that I’ve included screen grabs that are larger than I usually provide. This is due to the comparison that you’ll find further down, in addition to just showing off how nicely Tartan can do their job when they try hard enough.
Presented in an anamorphic aspect ratio of 1.85:1 Three…Extremes is one of Tartan’s best looking discs. There’s so very little to complain about, with only Edge Enhancement ruining an otherwise wonderful transfer. The halos tend to come and go, at times seeming minor, with Dumplings faring well and Cut showing off some for wider shots, but when we get to Miike’s Box and the plentiful snowy moments it shows up like a right little bleeder. With that out of the way there’s a nice amount of detail to be had. Cut comes off the worse, particularly when we get wider shots and things appear to be slightly soft, but the other two films look much better, so I suspect some of Cut’s problems are inherent to how it was processed. There is also a lovely, natural film grain which truly compliments the visuals. Colours are superb, as you can see from the shots I’ve provided. There are some striking reds and oranges in Box, not to mention some gorgeous blue tones, while Dumplings and its green and tanned hues come across excellently. Cut features some solid contrasting colours which are nicely brought to life. Flesh tones appear natural, black levels are impressive and contrast doesn’t appear to be problematic.
Below are comparisons between Tartan’s UK release and CJ Entertainment’s Korean version (Tartan on top). Just as an extra note the Korean disc presents the films in a different order which is Box, Dumplings, and Cut. I have to say that I prefer the order in which Tartan presents them. Dumplings slowly pulls us in before Cut offers some sheer insanity, with Box closing on a sad note.
As you can see there’s practically no difference between versions. It even harbours the same amount of Edge Enhancement. Judging the shot from Dumplings there is a slight amount of cropping on all sides. However, most of the disc appears normal and quite clearly the second grab demonstrates this. There’s no reason for anyone not to pick up this Tartan effort. A solid job all round.
Tartan caters for the fans with their usual selection of audio options (Korean 2.0, 5.1 Surround and DTS). In the past I’ve expressed my distaste for artificial remixes when they do sod all to enhance to the film and only end up taking valuable disc space. Well here Three…Extremes is different because it was filmed with such an audio experience in mind. Selecting the DTS options proves to be the best choice. The disc sounds great across the board; the subwoofer gets a nice work out, while surrounds make the most of the various well-steered scores. Dumplings starts off particularly eerie, with chimes sounding very close to the viewer. Each film has its own merits, but I don’t feel that I need to go into details for them. Dialogue is clear and overall you can expect a suitably creepy experience.
Optional English subtitles are included and there are no errors to report.
Behind the Scenes
This feature is accessed via a single play all button, but you’ll find that it is split into three sections. First up is Dumplings (14:36). This features behind the scenes footage and interviews with primary cast members and the director. It goes into a little detail about its social commentary, but above all it pin points what the main focas is, being a tale about human desire and psychological sickness, also doing its best to take everything to the furthest extreme while retaining a strong sense of realism. There are some clips which don’t appear in the film on the disc, so I presume they’re from the longer version; the most interesting is certainly the extended character relations, which includes Mei and Mrs. Li’s husband. Box (17:58) follows next. Most of this is made up of behind the scenes footage, where we see Miike direct his actors well as they go from location to location. The last three minutes concentrate on various interviews with Kyoko Hasegawa who comes across as being very soft spoken but keen about the role and director. Finally we look at Cut (20:43). This starts off with Park Chan-wook telling us about his first horror movie; a genre that he greatly loves and always wanted to tackle. He mentions getting through difficulties and even provides us some little known trivia, such as the director’s name being made up of several very famous Korean directors. Lee Byung-hun chats about working with Park Chan-wook and his fellow cast and we also get input from Im Won-hee who informs us that he had quite a difficult time in acting with a different dialect. Kang Hye-jeong has a few laughs as she talks about being tied to a piano, following on by praising her fellow actors and director. After these we get to see some behind the scenes footage: setting up shots, breaking into laughter and so on.
The subtitles provided are hard matted and they only translate the interviews. This is a little unfortunate as we miss out on a lot of stuff. While it might not be significantly important it does take away from the experience, especially when Box’s segment has fifteen minutes of Miike giving directions. The same goes for the other two, but they don’t spend nearly as much time focusing on this area.
The film’s trailer and a Tartan film reel rounds things up.
Three Extremes is a great horror anthology, coming from some of Asia’s most prolific contemporary directors. Each film offers its own pleasures and tackles subjects well by offering some intelligent storytelling and impressive technical visuals.
Tartan deserves a pat on the back for getting this one right. My only real disappointment, however, is that this release foregoes the Miike commentary on Box and Fruit Chan’s longer cut of Dumplings. Tartan has released Dumplings separately, which is a bit of a shame as otherwise this could have been a superb 2-disc edition.