Extremely... Disturbing


Three... Extremes - 2004
see link for writing credits
Directed by Fruit Chan, Chan-wook Park & Takashi Miike

Not that this was a contest, but the contest is over.  Three... Extremes wins.  I don't expect to see a horror anthology better than this.  That's not to say that it's perfect, but nothing else that I've seen in the category has been this thoughtful, this mature, this creepy and this beautiful.

It's a low-concept anthology with three high-concept segments.  It gathers three Asian directors -- Fruit Chan from Hong Kong, Chan-wook Park from Korea and Takashi Miike from Japan and turns them loose to tell a self-contained short story.  Three... Extremes is actually the sequel to a similarly arranged film called Three, but when Extremes proved to be something of a success on the foreign circuit in the US, Three was released here as a sequel, Three Extremes II.  I explain this now on the off chance that someone else might find themselves saying "Hey... how was the sequel released in 2002?"  Alright, down to business...

The first segment is Dumplings by Fruit Chan.  If you're a Chinese cinema buff, the title alone is apt to bring to mind images of Dragon Gate Inn.  You be half right.

Mrs. Li (Miriam Yeung Chin Wah) is a former actress (it's not uncommon for Chinese actresses to retire when they marry) concerned that her husband's affections are waning.  This may or may not have more to do with her own self-valuation than it does with his.  Mr. Li (Tony Leung Ka Fai) seemed perfectly willing to make of the whoopie with Mrs. Li, but he's a wealthy businessman and business requires him to travel regularly, which she interprets as abandonment.  In order to stave off the imperceptible ravages of time, Mrs. Li seeks out the maker of Hong Kong's most expensive dumplings, which are said to have restorative powers.

This brings her to the door of Auntie Mei (Bai Ling).  Mei runs a small, the-lower-the-profile-the-better operation out of her apartment, crafting these extraordinary dumplings by hand.  The old folk songs from her girlhood (evidently longer ago than anyone suspects) and dumpling-centric philosophy come free with purchase.  Mei requires one very special and difficult to come by ingredient for her dumplings, but they're guaranteed to fill one with youth.

I'm not going to go any farther with that because that's where the mean of the story comes into play, so to speak.  Not only did this story have subtext, such as Mrs. Li's aging issues, but it even had a subplot, about a customer of Auntie Mei's other small business.  Chan managed to fit an incredible amount of depth into a rather simple story, although he evidently didn't fit in as much as he'd wanted to, because he ended up reworking Dumplings into a full length feature shortly after Three... Extremes.  I wouldn't call this segment scary, but then I'm not sure I'd call any of them scary.  But I'd definitely call it disturbing... and insightful, maybe shocking, certainly sensuous, a little sad, even sexy, and totally engaging film making.

Next up is Chan-Wook Park (Oldboy, Thirst, Stoker) with Cut.  Having really enjoyed Park's vampire movie Thirst, I got all excited when Cut appeared as though it was going to be a vampire tale from a different angle, then suddenly, that turned into a movie in a movie, and the director became the center of the real story.

When the director (Byung-hun Lee, called only The Director) arrives home that evening after shooting -- to a house that looks exactly like the film set -- his wife is still out, but he may not exactly be alone.  First the house's lights go out... then his do.

He awakens back on the film set (which looks exactly like his house) to find that his wife is there, gagged and bound by wires in front of a piano.  On the other side of the room, a young girl is bound and gagged on the sofa.  In between them, the director finds that his own hands are tied and he has an enormous rubber band connecting him to the wall of the soundstage so he can only reach the other two through great effort.  There's also a stranger, a manic little man, whom the director eventually recognizes as an extra from his films, and it is he who holds all the cards now.  The stranger (like the director, otherwise unnamed) has come to the conclusion that only the poor should be good people, and the rich and beautiful, gifted in so many ways, should be burdened with the flaw of being bad people.  This is the premise for his deadly game; the director must prove himself to be a bad person by strangling the little girl on the couch, or his wife (a pianist) would lose a finger every five minutes.

Cut is arguably the most actually scary film in the trio, but the first word I'd use to describe it would be tense.  The stranger is pretty unhinged and the director is kind of ineffectual, and from this dynamic hatch variations and revelations that keep the drama amping up all the way to the twisted finale.  It's not a perfect piece, and the momentum drags somewhat as we approach the conclusion, but it deals strongly in many of the emotional tones that ones hopes to find in horror, and the stranger is certainly one of the more memorable killers I've seen in a while.  I, personally, felt like the "twist" ending (with actual twisting) was a little unjustified and tacked on for the sake of poetic rather than realistic story arc, but that was a decision that Park had made long before the conclusion.

The last film is definitely the strangest, and that's saying something.  Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer, 13 Assassins) directs Box, a dreamlike (for a reason) exploration of the past and/or dreams and/or ghosts that haunt Kyoko, a young writer.  Every night she dreams that she's wrapped in plastic and buried in a box.  When she's given a music box with a familiar tune, it seems to have the effect of summoning the spirit of her dead twin sister.  This seems to expand the experience of her dreams, showing us more of her past (or is it just symbolic of her past?) and linking those events to the part where she's buried in the box.

The more I think about it, the less I'm sure than anything was what it appeared to be.  I can easily see the entire thing being symbolic of something else, something entirely unshown, that may be the true story.  I'm reluctant to try to describe the story any more because I don't want to taint anyone else's perceptions.  The film is beautiful and sensuous and creepy and then creepier, no matter what it means.  It's a very experiential film.

Due to its repetitive nature, it does seem to drag in places where you've already figured out where it's going, and due to its symbolic nature, it may be infuriatingly vague for some viewers.  Were I a younger man, I might have found it ever so slightly wanky, but as I am not, I now find it to be the right kind of wanky.  Yes, it's trying something and yes, it can be unclear, but so can memories, dreams and feelings, and that's part of the experience that Miike shares with us.

Three... Extremes is mostly just going to piss off the kind of horror fan that measures a film in gallons of blood or volume of shrieks, but for those like me who care about story, about seeing something new and different, about the thoughts and feelings with which they fill us, and about just plain creep factor, it's essential viewing.  I can't say it will be your favorite horror movie or even your favorite anthology, but it's certainly something that won't soon be forgotten.

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