Post Millennial Trauma: Dumplings (2004)
God damn it, I didn’t want to do this film. I really didn’t. I’ve scoured the internets and read list after list after list of films in 2004 hoping against hope that there was an overlooked horror film in there that I hadn’t seen that could maybe do. However, having read hundreds of these things, I was eventually forced to either concede and do Shaun of the Dead (Frank’s Saw marathon put paid to that one) which is a comedy, or damn it, delve into this film that I saw a while ago and swore blind that I would never watch again. Needless to say, I’ve gone with the latter.
If you are of a nervous disposition and succumb to nausea easily then I suggest that you don’t read on, as I am going to have to put in a pretty strong spoiler. If you are armed with Dramamine or have no qualms then go for it, but consider yourselves warned. Basically, don’t read this at lunch as you’ll go right off it.
Man this is a repugnant fucking film, it really is. However, some of the lists I’ve read at horror blogs that have been forced to include crap like The Day After Tomorrow in their horror picks of the year really means I’ve got little choice but to cover what is a truly repellent, beautifully shot, intensely disgusting film. I actually feel ill now even thinking about it.
Dumplings grew out of a segment from the “Three Extremes” anthology, which gathered together three of the most “extreme” directors in Asia (no surprises really for seeing Miike was one of them). It wasn’t a bad idea, but it wasn’t a great film. Dumplings, I have to say, is dramatically better than the anthology that spawned it, being probably the only tale of the three that could stand to be expanded to feature length. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that the world is a better place because Fruit Chan decided to expand his segment.
Dumplings is, basically, a film about cannibalism, but not just cannibalism but cannibalism with a really nasty twist. I know that eating people is basically not nice at the best of times, but the events of this film, particularly the preparation scene two thirds of the way through (I’ll go into this with the reveal later) is in my top 3 nastiest things I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen an awful lot of horrid shit. I have no idea if there is a Chinese myth regarding medicine that this plunders, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out there was, what it does do, though, is refer back to the days where breeding was limited in China and combine it with a significant amount of mysticism, hocus pocus nonsense, and revulsion to turn out a truly unique and truly horrifying little film. I don’t know if Dumplings is a moral fable, and I don’t know if it’s just pure exploitation, but what I do know is that after seeing this film in 2006, I haven’t eaten Dim Sum since, and rewatching it has just hammered that home.
Mrs. Lee (Miriam Yeung Chin Wah) is a fading actress who has heard of a magical “youth” cure that can stave off the aging process. The only person that can supply the cure is Bai Ling’s Mei, who feeds her dumplings from a special recipe. Unfortunately for Mrs. Lee the cure doesn’t work, her husband (Tony Leung Ka-Fei from Election and The Lover, not to be confused with Tony Leung from every other Chinese film of the last twenty years) is a bit of an arsehole and has lost interest in her. So, Mrs. Lee goes back to Mei and demands the most potent mix of dumplings that Mei can provide, which works wonders, and the years drop off her. Unfortunately, she’s now completely addicted to the dumplings, and even worse, there’s a bad side effect where if she doesn’t eat them regularly she will smell like fish (not joking, the dinner party scene is terribly embarrassing). Mr Lee shags Mei (who it turns out is actually octogenarian due to sampling her own product), and then buggers off with her. This doesn’t matter, though, because Mrs. Lee now has the recipe including the all important secret ingredient.
All the actors in this are actually quite good. Bai Ling seems to be nuttier than squirrel poop in real life, but in her native tongue (avoiding shite like a cameo in Wild Wild West) here she actually puts in a cheerfully sleazy performance. It’s pretty obvious at the end that she’s wanted to get her claws into Mr. Lee for a long time, but it’s still not bad. Tony Leung Ka-Fei plays a cold womanising asshole well, but the real plaudits go to Miriam Yeung, whose character starts as haughty masking a sad desperation and then increases in mania before finishing the film well in need of restraining under Section 8 for her own good.
However, the real strength of this film is in the cinematography. Dumplings looks fucking fantastic, with a varied colour pallette and stylistically the film it reminds me most of is Infernal Affairs. Which is no surprise, really, when you know that Christopher Doyle was the man on both films. However, I do have to say that the direction here is really good, Chan doesn’t dwell in the depravity available to him, and even the most gruelling scene of the film isn’t actually wallowed around in. It’s still viscerally unpleasant, don’t get me wrong, but it could have been so much worse. Dumplings moves at a stately pace, Chan knows full well that the revelation in this film is an absolute fucking humdinger and as such he doesn’t feel a need to beat the audience unconscious with it.
Which, finally, brings me round to the revelation. I’ve already semi-given it away above with references to China’s birth rate and cannibalism, but now I’ve just got to come out and spoil. Dumplings is a pure horror film and a very extreme one for one reason only: Mei stuffs the damned things with cut up foetus. Yuck.
However, this isn’t unpleasant enough for Fruit Chan, so the device is used that the foetus is more potent the nearer it is to birth- which leads to the truly harrowing scene of the film: the abortion on the 15-year-old neighbour. Mei cheerily owns up to having conducted somewhere in the region of 30,000 terminations, and the reason her dumplings are the best is because she takes the fresh zygote, dices it up nice and thin (juliennes, even) and then stuffs the Dim Sum with the foetus and other assorted flavours. The abortion scene is fucking harrowing, but what makes it even worse is that at Mrs. Lee’s next lunch date we can see the foetus being prepared and (I’m not exaggerating this) it’s got fucking hair- it even looks like a baby. Yuck, I almost lost my lunch when I saw this, and went right off the Chinese Takeaway I was eating. With this revelation the sense of “wrongness” to the earlier scenes of Mei lovingly making pasta drop painfully into place: it felt wrong because it fucking was wrong.
Overall, I can’t say I recommend this. Although Dumplings is a supremely well made film, it is also truly horrible, and deeply unpleasant to watch. However, in a year as short of quality on every front as 2004, where Horror was a barren wasteland of crapness, inept schlock and general tedium, this is unfortunately probably the best film made. Nevertheless, it’s so unpleasant and so hard to get through that I give it a deeply nauseated two and a half Baby Herman’s out of 4.
Remake this one, Hollywood. I fucking dare you.
Until next time,