Dumplings began life as an instalment in the pan-Asian horror compendium Three Extremes. In contrast to the Amicus anthologies of the sixties and seventies, with their single director helming the entire enterprise, this particular film took in three filmmakers and three countries: Miike Takashi from Japan; Park Chan-Wook of South Korea; and, in the case of Dumplings, Hong Kong’s Fruit Chan. When set against these two giants of contemporary cult Asian cinema (Miike being the prolific mind behind of Audition, Ichi the Killer and many others, of course, whilst Park has served up fanboy favourites such as OldBoy and Lady Vengeance) it may seem a little odd that Chan would be the one to go for the feature-length extension. But then Chan too is a major figure amongst Hong Kong directors, albeit one without much distribution when it comes to the UK. Prior to Tartan picking up Dumplings and Three Extremes, his only film to see a theatrical release over here was Made in Hong Kong. From this perspective alone Dumplings would appear to be worthwhile: at last a chance to see some more of his work, although the fact that this disc is now scarce on the ground owing to Tartan’s recent ill-fortune perhaps compounds the director’s UK-related woes.
There are other reasons too why Dumplings should appeal beyond its half-hour-ish slot. It’s a beautifully constructed piece of cinema in either version, thanks to fine score from Chan Kwong Wing – all piano motifs and abrasive textures – and Chris Doyle’s presence as director of photography, here bringing to mind his work on Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake courtesy of an exquisite colour palette. And then there’s a rare leading role for Bai Ling, too often seen by Western eyes as a mere bit-part presence in US productions. It’s always been clear that she deserves more (though, of course, her presence in 1997’s Richard Gere China-set thriller Red Corner effectively killed of her career in native productions) and Dumplings ably provides her with the opportunity.
Yet such concerns will ultimately remain peripheral in the face of the bigger question: is it any good? To make things clear I’ll admit that I’m yet to see Three Extremes and therefore the shorter, 37-minute incarnation of Dumplings. Yet I can’t help the feeling that at 90 minutes it does appear a little stretched. In simple terms this is a cautionary tale (as, indeed, many compendium tales tend to be, or for that matter the short-form horror tales seen in fantastical television series over the years) concerning itself with the fountain of youth. Countess Bathory allusions could therefore be made, though current issues figure far more prominently. Bai Ling’s character is an ex-abortionist who once found plenty of work on the mainland upholding its “one-child” policy. She now procures aborted foetuses for their youth-enhancing properties when consumed (hence the title), her most eager client being an ex-TV actress (Miriam Yeung) looking to regain her looks and ward off her husband (Tony Leung Ka Fai) from nubile hotel maids or whoever else catches his eye.
Thus abortion and celebrity are amongst the themes of Dumplings, yet neither quite gets the satirical poke we should perhaps have expected. Indeed, Chan rarely gets to genuine grips with either, instead they often exist to merely shift along the narrative to its various denouements. Within the more compact timeframe it would perhaps have been workable to simply nod in their direction and let the audience make their own connections. But in 90-minute form they can’t help but feel decidedly flimsy and undercooked. Furthermore, the narrative itself never really extends beyond that which would suffice at a third of the length: minimal exposition; first act detailing how the foetuses are procured and their properties; then straight into the inevitable pay-off (though I believe the one here differs slightly from that which concluded the Three Extremes version). At times it’s as though Dumplings is simply playing out as a slower moving incarnation of the original episode. And so this leaves the little touches – the emphasis Chan puts on the more horrific elements, courtesy of the smells and sounds of the foetuses being prepared and consumed, not to mention the unwanted aftermath – plus those elements of intrigue mentioned earlier, though I can’t escape the feeling that Dumplings the feature proves any more satisfying than Dumplings the short. Indeed, I’m inclined to expect that Chan’s tale works far better when trimmed to its very essentials.
Over the years we come to expect certain things from a Tartan disc housing an Asian movie. Thankfully, Dumplings sidesteps the conversions issues so often a problem and as such proves to be very pleasing. The original 1.85:1 aspect ratio is in place, anamorphic enhancement and optional English subtitles are both in place, and the print itself is in fine condition. It’s clean, crisp and ably conveys the attention cinematographer Christopher Doyle has paid to the colour schemes. In addition we also get the common Tartan combination of DD2.0, DD5.1 and DTS soundtracks, each perfectly acceptable on its own terms though it’s the 5.1 option that was intended so this is the one for the purists. Indeed, there’s little overt difference between the three and no stand-out flaws to make one any lesser than the others. Dialogue remains clear throughout, whilst the score and sound design are especially strong.
As for extras, besides the trailer reel for other Tartan discs, we find a 23-minute interview with Bai Ling. Given her history with Asian cinema (as mentioned above) this piece should find plenty to interest, but sadly sticks to standard, often inane, puff-piece questioning. So if you want to know what surprises the leading lady, or how she feels about getting older, then this may just provide a worthwhile sit-through. All others should simply remove the disc after each viewing. (Note that the interview is conducted in English and therefore comes with subtitling.) Tartan have also provided a booklet containing brief notes from Calum Waddell.