For one week only, the Starz FilmCenter is showing two movies that make this year’s best double feature. The fact that they’re both playing Halloween weekend could not be more perfect.
One of them is Three... Extremes. It’s one of those three-in-one movies like Eros or New York Stories. This time, the theme is the macabre, and the directors are huge players in Asian cinema.
- I hadn’t heard of Fruit Chan before this film (a friend who had seen his work speaks Chinese and knows how to dig through the video sections of Chinese groceries — “an acquired taste” is how he describes Chan’s movies).
- Chan-Wook Park, from Korea, directed Oldboy, one of my favorite films of 2005 (released in 2003 elsewhere).
- Takashi Miike (Audition), at 45, is hugely prolific, with 65 movies to his name in the IMDB.
R for strong disturbing violent content, language, sex
The other half of Starz’ inadvertently perfect double-feature is another movie about shock value: The Aristocrats, about the world’s most offensive joke.
Like the jokes in The Aristocrats, the horror stories in Three... Extremes are meant to shock the audience. But as with any “threefer” movie, the segments have different styles, quality, and effectiveness.
Dumplings attacks the audience viscerally. I hate to even mention what it’s about, because part of the horror is confirming one’s own suspicions oneself. Consider this whole section a spoiler warning if you don’t want to know in advance.
The director is Fruit Chan, a prolific Hong Kong director, but whose work is mostly unavailable stateside. Shooting for Chan is the almost-legendary Christopher Doyle (Hero, In the Mood for Love). His leading lady is Bai Ling (Lords of Dogtown, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), who is taking her Asian fame worldwide.
As with most good horror films, Dumplings deals with some genuine sociopolitical issues. One is the morality of abortion. Specifically, it raises some of the following questions: Who decides? Who performs the abortion? What motives can influence the decision, and are there good and bad motives that can make the act itself immoral?
The other issue has to do with China’s notorious appetite for superstitious medicines. Rhinos and Tigers are killed nearly to extinction so that Chinese customers can buy powdered horn and preserved penis. I’ll leave it to you figure out how the two issues are intertwined. Don’t forget the eggs and milk.
The movie works viscerally, too. The sound design is particularly noticeable. Aside from the grossout crunching and squishing sounds (admittedly a cheap shot), the general atmosphere is heavy and unsettling: some of the sound effects sound like a giant, rubbing his finger around the rim of a giant steel wineglass.
If you get too spooked or grossed out, just let yourself realize how brazenly Chan is trying to push your buttons. Imagine this all as an Aristocrats joke, and you’ll pop right back into reality.
Next up is a film from Chan-Wook Park. What looks like “something we threw together about vampires” (as Bart Simpson once said) turns out to be a movie set. The real horror begins when the director of the vampire movie gets home to find his wife under the control of a crazed extra.
As with Dumplings, there is some serious substance behind the Cut’s gore. At issue are the nightmares of a director too obsessed with his career and reputation to simply live life. Look deeper and you see Park’s own soul-searching about success and creativity. Park could have called this film 7 1/2.
For the director in our movie, success brings its own problems. Even if you’ve earned your accolades, and even if you haven’t let it get to your head, your elevated status — the mere fact of your success — makes you a target. The crazed tormentor in the movie has his own problems, but he projects them onto our director. Lacking any real gripe with the director, he picks a general complaint: the gulf between the haves and the have-nots.
The setup is contrived, like Saw, or like the thought experiments philosophers use to evaluate moral arguments. The tormentor will cut off his wife’s fingers, one by one, until the director (bound by an elastic band to his artwork) does something morally reprehensible, say commit murder.
There are some interesting throwaway lines, any of which could start a good subplot in a movie: the unnatural power a director over actors; the artistic and moral value of making horror movies; the way the poor and rich are portrayed in movies, past and present.
The same goes for the production in general. There is a gratuitously remarkable dolly shot that pulls away from the set, around the corner, through the glass handle of a blender, and back to the director. The tormentor’s elaborate setup is surreal and dreamlike. There’s even a song-and-dance number, believe it or not.
In the end, these good ideas may not cohere in Cut. But then, coherence isn’t usually a mark of self-reflexive rumination.
Miike goes last with a story about twin sisters, raised on stage. The modern story shows one sister reliving the past in flashback. The girls, Kyoko and Shoko, worked with their father in an acrobatic magic act, but daddy always liked Shoko best. Naturally, Kyoko grew jealous and probably lashed out more than once. But the one time Miike shows us, something bad happens, and it haunts Kyoko for the rest of her life.
Box is the most traditional of the three, and in some ways the most effective. For example, it is the least susceptible to being in a double-feature with The Arisocrats. It’s a straightforward ghost story driven by regret.
But it’s also the least colored with subtext and sociology, two things that made the previous films seem to rise above the genre. Depending on how purist your tastes are, Box is likely to be either your favorite or your least favorite of the three.
Three Plus One
Maybe it’s irreverent for me to recommend The Aristocrats as a double feature with Three... Extremes. But there really is some connection between comedy and horror. They’re both about tension and release. With comedy, the release is a laugh; with horror, it’s a start or a wince.
Both movies take the tension to an extreme by deliberately trying to shock the audience’s sensibility, in order to make the release that much more effective. Together, they make an odd pairing that may enhance or diminish each other, depending on your own tolerance for extremes.
I recommend The Aristocrats first if you want to diminish the shock value of the horror films, and Three... Extremes first if you want to make The Aristocrats even funnier.