Raw is coming out soon! Buy your tickets here!
In 1729, satirist Jonathan Swift modestly proposed a solution to Ireland’s economic woes. That solution was more than many could stomach, but it effectively acted as an emetic for the nation’s social and financial ills. Similarly, Hong Kong director Fruit Chan boils, bubbles, and serves up some of society’s ugliest warts with his 40-minute horror film, Dumplings.
Dumplings is the first segment of the critically acclaimed 2005 East Asian horror anthology, 3…Extremes. In it, Mrs. Li (Miram Yeung), an aging former starlet, struggles with a lifeless marriage and painful recollections of her glory days on TV. The film is filled with disjointed shots of her gazing upon her reflection, quietly underscoring her obsession in a cinematic apertif to the meat and bones of the plot. Despite her luxurious lifestyle, Mrs. Li lives an unsatisfying life and only desires the one thing that can bring back both her husband’s affection and the spotlight: her youthful looks. She heads to a dingy flat atop a decaying high-rise and seeks out the “rejuvenating” services of a bubbly woman known as Aunt Mei (Bai Ling). Mei’s operation is a culinary one, preparing and serving dumplings to her clients with promises of a life renewed, like her own. She asks Mrs. Li to guess her age, to which Mrs. Li gives a polite but honest ballpark figure of 30. Aunt Mei cheerily reveals that not only is she much older than that, but the secret to her supple, wrinkle-free skin is in her dumpling recipe.
The ingredients of the dumplings is what makes the film fall into the horror genre, and draws a common thread from Swift’s proposal. The actress is fully cognizant of the kind of meat used to fill the dumplings, but she is only slightly reluctant to place an order. At first it seems like she is mulling over the ethical dilemma of cannibalism, but within minutes it becomes clear that Mrs. Li is only concerned with the same thing countless women have asked when ordering chemical-filled wrinkle creams and dangerous skin-bleaching treatments from mysterious exotic vendors: does it work? The question is a resonant one; it is of such high priority that there is even a line of homeopathic weight-loss body products on the market that’s simply called, “It Works!” As with the slew of miracle beauty products marketed toward women today, the potency of the ingredients is all that matters.
Horror has long been a brooding bastion of satire, taking societal follies and exaggerating them or personifying them in an unsettling way that sets it apart from comedy. The East Asian Extreme genre movement has gained popularity for its rejection of the supernatural in favor of exploring the depths of depravity in everyday life and finding nightmares in our most logical waking moments. It is in this spirit that Dumplings uses a surreal scenario to make the simplest of points about youth and beauty. While the film has its occasional grotesque moments, it’s the concepts that are the most depraved. That Mrs. Li is in such a state that she is willing to leave the comforts of her ivory tower to traipse through the deep, dark (figurative) woods and visit the proverbial witch for a magical fountain of youth concoction implies a desperate desire to satisfy not only her own needs, but those of the world around her. After the dumplings start to work their magic, Li’s husband notices her newfound beauty and confidence, becoming utterly enamored with her again. Her subsequent return to Aunt Mei to place another order is her testament: it is a nasty business, but as long as I get mine, I won’t ask questions.
In Chan’s world and in our own, youth is a commodity that begets beauty and life. In order to achieve that life, however, Chan argues that women go about it in ugly ways. This outlook is amplified in the progress of Mrs. Li’s continued “rejuvenation”. She develops an itch which gives way to a nasty rash. At a dinner party, her body emits a foul fishy stench. Her quest for ultimate beauty is what brings her inner ugliness simmering to the surface in the kind of poetic irony that only the grimmest of fairy tales could give.
Aunt Mei procures her special filling by taking advantage of the poor, the desperate, and the aggrieved. Between clandestine trips to local hospitals for stillborn fetuses and performing back alley abortions, Mei has no problem procuring meat for her clients. An expecting teenager and her mother arrive at Mei’s apartment shortly after Mrs. Li departs. The teen is young; too young for this responsibility, and too destitute to provide for this child. After the girl passes a premature, stillborn baby, Aunt Mei eagerly cuts the umbilical cord. This one is special, Mei claims, because it’s more advanced than the shrimp-sized fetuses that she normally uses. This meat, she tells a desperate Mrs. Li, is the most potent. The following day, Mrs. Li hungrily swallows the resulting dumplings in a frenzy. Indeed, it is only in the beginning that she chokes down the dumplings with effort, as her initial reluctance gives way to a zealous bloodlust once she gets her desired results and attention. By the second visit, Mrs. Li is not only eating the dumplings, but giving Aunt Mei cooking tips to make the dish more palatable, further masking its horrifying origins. She acts as a dramatization of Swift’s words, nearly three centuries earlier: the wealthy literally consuming the poor for its own benefit.
This sort of infringement isn’t only for the poor, either. When Mrs. Li’s unfaithful husband decides to skip their anniversary in favor of another one of his “business trips”, she naturally protests. She has followed him on one of these trips, she’s seen his mistress. Li knows that she is being cheated on. Her husband’s response is in the form of a hefty check which he offers with a suggestion to “see if the house needs any more renovations”. In the course of their conversation it becomes clear that it’s not the house that needs renovating, and they both know it. At the right price, the husband does as he pleases and she is powerless to stop him. Thus, when Mrs. Li pays into a transaction that benefits her to the great deficit of the destitute young mother, Dumplings draws attention to a wider issue in society: with enough money, you can do whatever you want to whomever you want. The cannibalism is both literal and economic.
As Mrs. Li dines, Aunt Mei imparts some advice, “For women to rejuvenate, you must start from the inside for the best result.” So, then, must society at large in order to address its blemishes. Dumplings works less like a lighthearted funhouse mirror and more like awesome, frightening They Live shades. It is through these darkened lenses that we can see the world for how ugly it truly is, yet remain in the distant comfort that it’s only a movie. The shock-and-awe imagery and tone of this film may turn a few viewers off, but in Dumplings and in the horror genre at large, it is the underlying message that, for many, is hardest to swallow.