This anthology of Asian horror stories (known as Saam Gaang in the East) was retitled THREE EXTREMES II for U.S. home video, which is doubly misleading: THREE precedes 2004’s THREE EXTREMES by two years, and it is far less extreme in terms of violence and perversity, instead offering moderately interesting variations on the traditional tropes of Asian horror films as established in 1998’s RING. Typical of anthologies, the results are uneven, with two decent episodes and one dud. Fans of the formula, who were put off by THREE EXTREMES, will find THREE closer to their hearts, and at the very least, it represents a considerable improvement upon the other relatively well known Asian Anthology, BANGKOK HAUNTED (2001).
There is no linking device or thematic connection between the three episodes, each of which was made by a completely different team: one from South Korea, one from Thailand, and one from China.
First up is “Memories,” from South Korean writer-director Kim Ji-woon, who would go on to wow critics with his subsequent TALE OF TWO SISTERS (Janghwa Hongryeon, 2003). “Memories” utilizes similar strategies, mixing the supernatural with the psychological. The story features a husband suffering from visions of his missing wife (who appears to him as the traditional Asian ghost girl, with long black hair obscuring his face); his psychiatrist suggests the visions are sympoms of the husband’s repressed memories about why his wife left him. Meanwhile, the wife awakens on a distant street, apparently suffering from amnesia, and struggles to find her way back home.
The greatest strength of “Memories” is its cool, sharp visuals. K-Horror films (as opposed to their J-Horror counterpart) tend to be more colorful, capturing the modern world in glistening precise images that make the intrusion of the horror all the more uncanny. Kim Ji-woon’s use of this approach pays off here, holding attention even if the story turns out to be relatively simple. Intercutting the two narrative threads maintains an aura of mystery, which is enhanced by some suggestive and possibly ironic hints about what is happening (the episode is set in a new housing development that claims to be a place where dreams come true). Unfortunately, the resolution is neither particularly astounding nor comletely satisfying.
Far more disappointing is THREE’s Thai episode “The Wheel,” a period piece set in a small village where a puppet master dies. Opening narration informs us that these puppets are imbued with the spirit of their creator, who is the only one who may own them; anyone else will fall under the curse. Needless to say, someone lays claims to the puppets, and the curse begins to works its evil magic – not that you will care.
For a short subject, “The Wheel” is amazingly listless; you would think the limited running time would force a certain amount of narrative comprehsion, but no, the story wanders from character to character, never settling on a central protagonist or clarifying why we should worry about what happens to any of them. Adding insult to injury, there is an “It was only a premonition” twist ending, suggesting that a character has seen the future that will result from taking the puppets – and then he goes ahead and ignores the warning. Smart move, moron!
THREE improves considerably with its final episode, “Going Home” directed by Peter Chan (who produced the Pang Brothers’ THE EYE and THE EYE 2). The story follows a single cop named Wai and his son, who move into a nearly deserted apartment building, with only one neighbor. Wai’s son is disturbed by the mysterious appearance of a little girl, along with strange phenomena, such as all the doors of the vacant apartments being inexplicably open. When Wai’s son disappears, the cop questions the neighbor, Yu, stumbling upon an extremely strange situation: Yu has preserved the body of his dead wife, Hai’er, in the hope that daily regimen of Chinese medicine (as opposed to Western medicine) will resurrect her.
Although it’s story is simple, “Going Home” is relatively sophisticated. Yu appears at first to be a lunatic villain, who knocks out Wai and ties him up in order to avoid having his secret revealed. But as time goes by, we begin to see his sympathetic side, as he describes the devotion he has showered on his wife for the last three years (the resurrection process is not a fast one). By the time Wai’s cop friends come looking for him, we no longer want to see Yu come to a bad end.
As engrossing as it is, “Going Home” suffers from some obvious flaws. The mysterious little girl seems shoe-horned into the film in order to justify including this episode in an anthology of ghost stories. She is just a plot device, luring Wai’s son away so that Wai will have a motivation to question his neighbor and stumble upon his secret. Once Wai has been detained by Yu, the missing son is virtually forgotten (except for one or two brief moments of lip service) as the focus shifts to Yu.
[SPOILER ALERT] The surprise ending is also slightly muddled: We are led to believe that Yu’s wife previously resurrected him, using the same Chinese medicine that he is now using on her. Why, then, does his wife does not return fully to life? Are we to believe that a police autopsy killed her upon the point of resurrection? But why would a doctor perform an autopsy whose twitching fingers and flickering eyelids are already displaying signs of life? [END SPOILERS].
The nagging questions raised by the twist ending are not enough to ruin the overall impact of “Going Home,” but they do suggest that the story might have benefitted from a more fully thought-out treatment that did not involve the irrelevant supernatural elements.
At 140 minutes, THREE outstays its welcome, and the episodes do not enhance each other in a way that would tie the three parts into a satisfying whole. Fortuntately, this disjointed nature makes it easy enough to view the episodes one at a time, fast-forwarding through (or skipping entirely) “The Wheel.” Both “Memories” and “Going Home” offer something of interest to fans of Asian horror; although each uses the cliches of the genre, neither one is simply a genre piece. Instead, they display little sparks of original vision that make THREE interesting if not esseential viewing.
THREE (Saam Gaang, a.k.a. “Three Extremes 2,” 2002).
- “Memories” written and directed by Kim Ji-Woon. Cast: Kim Hye-su , Jeong Bo-seok, Choi Jeong-won, Jang Jung-Won, Sung-Keun Jee.
- “The Wheel” directed by Nonzee Nimibutr. Written by Nitas Singhamat from a story by Ek Lemchuen and Nonzee Nimibutr. Cast: Suwinit Panjamawat, Kanyavae Chatiawaipreacha, Pornchai Chuvanon, Anusak Intasorn, Pattama Jangjarut.
- “Going Home” directed by Peter Chan. Written by Matt Chowand Jo Jo Yuet-chun Hui from a story by Teddy Chan and Chao Bin Su. Cast: Leon Lai, Eric Tsang, Eugenia Yuan, Ting-Fung Li, Tsz-Wing Lau.