Dumplings/Jiao Zi (2004) ***
A no-longer-young but still good-looking lady (The Sorcerer and the White Snake’s Miriam Yeung Chin Wah) arrives at a crumbling low-rent apartment tower in one of Hong Kong’s shittier neighborhoods for a consultation with another woman known as Aunt Mei (Bai Ling, from Lord of the Elves and Blood Shed). The former is an ex-TV star; the latter used to be a doctor in the People’s Republic before she emigrated across the river under some vague penumbra of disgrace. What brings them together is the state of the actress’s marriage. Her rich husband, Mr. Li (Tony Leung Kai Fa, of Flying Dagger and The Devil Inside Me), has begun exhibiting a pronounced interest in much younger girls, and although Mrs. Li’s showbiz background has left her with a forgiving attitude toward infidelity, she has no intention standing idly by while he trades her in on a newer model. Word on the street is, Aunt Mei has a recipe for pot stickers that will shave years off a woman’s apparent age. Indeed she does, and the ex-doctor herself is a testament to the dumplings’ effectiveness. Mei looks like she might be a few years younger than Mrs. Li, yet around the flat there are photos of her as a grown woman that can only have been taken during the eras of the Cultural Revolution or even the Great Leap Forward. Her restorative preparation is not for the squeamish, however, for the active ingredient is finely minced human fetuses, smuggled over from a hospital in Shen Zhen with the help of a crooked obstetrics nurse (Wu Wai Man).
If you feel like you’ve heard that story before around here, you have. A short version of Dumplings appeared as the opening segment of the pan-Asiatic horror anthology, Three… Extremes, which I reviewed about four or five years ago. This is the feature-length version, which I gather was intended primarily for domestic consumption, while Three… Extremes sought markets overseas. So far as I can tell, the long version includes all of the footage from the short one— which is interesting, because writer Lilian Lee Pik Wah and director Fruit Chan make a lot of it mean something drastically different if my memories of the short are at all trustworthy. For instance, I remember the teenaged girl (Dating a Vampire’s Miki Yeung) who comes to grief after Mei aborts her incestuous rape-baby being the catalyst for the endgame in the Three… Extremes edit, but here Kate and her mom (So-Fun Wong, from Yes, I Can See Dead People and Return of the Evil Fox) are just unfortunate collateral casualties. In Dumplings, the crucial development is Mr. Li’s discovery of the secret behind his wife’s rejuvenation. There’s also a wicked new subplot concerning what happens when Mrs. Li learns that one of her husband’s mistresses (Meme Tian) has become pregnant.
The main thing Fruit Chan does with the extra 50 minutes, though, is to enlarge upon the relationship that develops between Mrs. Li and Mei as the former seeks stronger and stronger fixes to speed up her return to youth. What the Three… Extremes segment portrayed as strictly business blossoms here into an extremely uncomfortable friendship born of shared frustration with the lot of an aging woman in a society that values females primarily for their beauty, and assesses their beauty primarily on the basis of youth. We learn more about Mei’s background (including her true age), get a much clearer sense of her motivation, and form in the end an impression of her much more nuanced than the short version of this film permitted. It is thus all the more shocking now when Mei abandons Mrs. Li to her own devices— and without even the excuse of a police investigation into Kate’s post-abortion uterine hemorrhage! All in all, the enlargements transform Dumplings from an Asian shock-schlock update of The Wasp Woman into something more like an arty, Oriental Death Becomes Her.
As that ought to imply, the 90-minute Dumplings has a sense of humor that is not readily apparent in the 40-minute version. It’s hard to say where that comes from, since there aren’t really any jokes as such. Maybe it’s just that the more time we spend in Mei’s company, the more amusing her ordinariness— her banality, even— becomes. For all her witchy mastery over the aging process, she still comes across as someone trying too hard to seem younger than she is. Not content to stay 30-ish forever by eating her own fetus-dumplings, she has to take it that one critical step too far by trying to dress like she’s seventeen. Naturally, you can see that in Three… Extremes, too, if you look closely enough, but the odds are you’ll be too busy gagging over all the second-trimester cannibalism to give Mei the necessary scrutiny. That seems strange, too— that Dumplings is so much less overtly horrifying than its little sister, even though all the horrid stuff is still in here. I think it’s a matter of proportion more than anything else. The same amount of fetus-eating feels less overwhelming when parceled out over twice as much film, and counterbalanced against heavier weights of both social commentary and blackly absurdist humor. Another effect of the longer running time is that it draws more attention toward Dumplings’ stylistic tics, both Fruit Chan’s and especially those of cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Lots of long, unbroken takes; lots of off-center compositions that put large sections of the actors’ heads outside the frame; lots of unapologetically contrived color schemes. That too takes some of the emphasis away from what’s in Aunt Mei’s miraculous pot stickers. To compare Dumplings once again to something from the West, its combination of transgressive subject matter and confrontationally self-conscious artiness suggests to me what might happen if Pedro Almodovar got it into his head to make a horror movie. My tastes being what they are, it’s only to be expected that I’d like the more vicious short version better, but at the same time, I feel like I have a clearer understanding of the Three… Extremes segment thanks to the long-form Dumplings. (I’ve also got a sudden craving to check out The Skin I Live In, which is what really did happen when Almodovar made a horror film, but we’ll talk about that some other time.)