THREE…EXTREMES is an anthology by three different directors: one Chinese, one Korean, one Japanese. All the episodes are interesting and disturbing – perhaps too much so, without any clear reason for the audience to endure the suffering. Despite the Asian pedigree, none of the episodes is in the mode of recent terrors from the Far East (e.g., RINGU and THE GRUDGE). For the most part they eschew eerie manifestations in favor of twisted tales about visceral and/or psychological horror.
Director Fruit Chan’s “Dumplings” is about the disgusting lengths to which one married woman goes to regain the attention of her older husband. The not-so-secret ingredient in the titular food – the element that restores her youthful beauty – is human embryos! But such Faustian bargains inevitably have a price: the wife develops a cadaverous body order, and when your source for the dumplings dries up, she is forced to take extreme measure on her own, including a self-induced abortion. The final fadeout is a sick little visual joke, indicating she has become physically as well as morally a monster.
Writer-director Chan-wook Park’s “Cut” begins with an amusing fake-out: bloody, modern-day vampire movie that turns out to be the work of a director who goes home after the shoot and finds himself the victim of a home invasion. Dressed up in settings that look like something out of a Dario Argento horror-thriller, the story plays out like a sequence from SAW, with a psycho killer forcing him into a horrible decision: either strangle a child or watch his pianist-wife’s fingers cut off one by one at five minute intervals. Despite a good start, the episode drags on too long, descends at times into foolish comedy, and then winds up with a just plain bad twist ending. It doesn’t help that the actor playing the tormentor is not convincingly frightening, and Park lets him chew the scenery in a way that undermines the horror (at one point, he even does a lip-synch song-and-dance routine).
Director Takashi Miike’s “Box” is the best of the bunch – a disturbing, dreamlike tale of a woman novelist haunted by dreams of her twin sister who died long ago. Through a series of flashbacks and/or dreams, we see that the sisters worked as sideshow contortionists with their stepfather long ago, until jealousy led to the accidental death of one of them, burned to death in the titular tiny box used in their stage act. With hints of pedophilia and incest, this one is genuinely disturbing; the only way to “read” it is as a psycho-drama playing out in the lead character’s head. Miike perhaps overplays the ambiguity of the story: the stepfather in the flashbacks is played by the same actor who plays the novelist’s editor in the present, leaving us to wonder whether he isn’t just a projection from her imagination, and the distinction between dream, reality, and flashback is never clear. However, the episode looks absolutely beautiful, and Miike seems in complete control of the effects he wants to achieve, including the film’s only moments of traditional supernatural-type horror, when the dead sister briefly reappears to haunt her sibling, like a manifestation of a guilty conscience.
Don’t go to THREE…EXTREMES looking for traditional Asian horror; there is at least one ghostly girl with long black hair covering hiding her face, but that is a minor element here. For the most part, the stories here are geared to generate a thrill of horror rather than fear (if by horror we mean disgust that makes you squirm rather than a shock that makes you scream and leap out of your seat). The film may well live up to its title: it is perhaps too extreme for some viewers, perhaps even in bad taste at times, but you have to give all the episodes credit for being bizarre and effective. You may not always like what you’re seeing, but you have to admit it’s down well.
THREE…EXTREMES (a.k.a. “Three, Monster,” 2004). “Dumplings” directed by Fruit Chan, written by Lillian Lee, starring Bai Ling. “Cut” written and directed by Chan-wook Park, starring Byung-hun Lee, Hye-jeong Kang, Won-hie Lim. “Box” directec by Takashi Miike, written by Haruko Fukushima from a story by Bun Saikou, starring Mitsuru Akaboshi, Atsuro Watabe.