|cast: Ling Bai, Tony Leung Ka Fai, and Miriam Yeung Chin Wah
director: Fruit Chan
91 minutes (18) 2004
|Dumplings first appeared in 2004 as one third of a short film collection called Three… Extremes. Despite also boasting short films by Takashi Miike (Audition) and Park Chan Wook (Oldboy), this collection was only recently made available on DVD in the UK and, intriguingly, it’s the lesser known of the three directors (Fruit Chan) whose film now gets released as an extended feature-length director’s cut. Dumplings (aka: Gaau ji) is less a traditional horror movie than it is a slow-burning drama about the hideous lengths to which people will go to feel young, and it’s arguably one of the most exciting Asian films to be released this year.
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Mrs Li was once a famous TV actress. However, over the years age has taken its toll and the acting jobs dried up as she was supplanted by a younger generation of actresses. When this younger generation also threatened to take her husband from her, Mrs Li is forced to seek out the services of Aunt Mei. Mei was once a renowned surgeon but she now makes her living as a midwife and a cook. Indeed, despite being in her sixties Mei looks to be barely out of her thirties thanks to the miraculous properties of her dumplings. Mrs Li’s new diet wins back her husband’s affections but also sets in motion a chain of events that will lead to Mei cutting her off, forcing her to look elsewhere for supplies in her constant quest to appear young.
The film itself is built around the tension between beautiful appearances and internal squalor and this tension is beautifully expressed through the constant juxtaposition of beauty with ugliness as magnificent food is produced in filthy kitchens and people eat with impeccable etiquette to an almost deafening symphony of grunts, slurps and crunches. Even the serene sensuality of the estranged couple’s reunion is undercut by the body horror of a back-street abortion as Chan relentlessly hammers home the message that beauty and squalor go together and that for all the beauty you posses, you can never escape the corruption. The visual beauty of this film is perhaps hardly surprising given that its director of photography was Christopher Doyle, the man behind the visual style of controversial Jet-Li fascist apologia Hero.
However, for all the beauty and symbolic power of this film, what ultimately drives it forward are the performances. Ling Bai is stunning as the cook who manages to be sensuous and warm but at the same time utterly chilling. She is ably supported by Tony Leung Ka Fai and Miriam Yeung Chin Wah, who are initially made up to look a lot older than they actually are. These three play off each other wonderfully as they create an enigmatic love triangle that draws the film forwards despite never coming to dominate proceedings. Indeed, Chan perfectly balances the film by grounding it in human relationships but without ever allowing those relationships to overshadow the central theme of the film.
Chilling and darkly satirical, Dumplings steers clear of the usual J- and K-horror genre conventions to produce one of the more unusual but fascinating films to have emerged in recent years. Warmly recommended.