Dir: Fruit Chan. HK.2005. 91mins.
Described by the directoras a "post-feminist horror film", Dumplings is the full-length versionof a 30-minute short presented in Venice last year as part of Three Extremes,an omnibus film which also showcased twisted tales by Asian directors TakeshiMiike and Park Chan-Wook.
Dumplings was easily the best thing about Three Extremes;so it comes as some relief to discover that the full-length version is stillvery good - though in stretching the same story over 90 minutes, it loses someof the horrific punchiness of its earlier incarnation and becomes more of astyle exercise.
But this is a refreshingreturn to form for Fruit Chan after the embarrassing debacle of PublicToilet, and it proves that this darling of the indie scene can more thanhandle a larger budget and the production constraints that come with it.
Centring on a former TVstarlet who will go to any lengths to regain her lost youth and her erranthusband, Dumplings is given an edge by Chris Doyle's limpid photographyand Yee Chung-Man's classic, colour-coded production design, which are indelicious, ironic counterpoint with the frankly sickening subject matter.
But this is nosplatter-fest: while hardly family viewing, Dumplings is such an eleganthorror-trip, more Wong Kar-Wai than Miike, that it should reach out beyond theultra-cult niche into the general arthouse circuit. Those of a sensitivenature, however, should steer well clear.
The film opens with leggytrash queen Aunt Mei (Bai Ling) carrying an airtight ceramic dumpling jar intoHong Kong from mainland China. The top tray of the jar contains acustoms-fooling lunch of rice and eggs; what's underneath, though, is far moresinister. Mei is, ostensibly, a cook, who makes the best and most expensive dumplingsin Hong Kong.
Qing (Yeung), a former soapstar who ended up marrying her series' sponsor, turns up at Mei's edge-of-towntenement apartment one day: she's heard that Mei's dumplings have miraculousrejuvenating properties, and she is desperate to win back her husband, who hasbegun an affair with a younger woman.
What's in the dumplings isflagged from an early stage, and finally revealed about 20 minutes in. It's nospoiler to reveal that Mei once worked as a doctor in an abortion clinic inmainland China, and that the impeccably-dressed Qing - her ever-changingtailleurs a sort of Chanel variation on the what was worn by Maggie Cheung in Inthe Mood For Love - is initially disgusted by what she's eating. But asAunt Mei comments, "think of the results - not what it was".
Doyle's camera lingers onevery chop of the knife and caresses the blushing pink filling of thedumplings, which match Mei's fuchsia thigh-hugging trousers. Her apartment isseedy and kitsch in equal measure; on a sideboard, a Mao statuette nestles upagainst the Virgin Mary, hinting at the implosion of moral values in this worldwhere just about anything can be bought - at a price.
As Qing becomes moredemanding, asking for stronger stuff, the film inches towards absurdity - butit is reined in by the extremely controlled, elegant direction. In a way, thischilling little number is the cinematic equivalent of Jonathan's Swift's AModest Proposal - a satirical pamphlet that shocked 18th-century readers byproposing eating babies as a solution to the Irish famine. There, as here, thekey to the success of the exercise is a sustained control of tone.
Prod co: Applause Pictures
Int'l sales: Fortissimo Films
Exec prod: Eric Tsang
Prod: Peter Ho-Sun Chan
Scr: Lilian Lee
Cine: Chris Doyle
Pro des: Yee Chung-Man
Ed: Tin Sam Fat, Chan Ki-Hop
Mus: Chan Kwong-Wing
Main cast: Miriam Yeung, BaiLing, Tony Ka-Fai Leung