Bring some dramamine to Fruit Chan’s best film to date
Of any contemporary Asian director, Fruit Chan is not the obvious choice to contribute to the follow-up to the successful Hong Kong horror anthology Three (2002). That earlier film comprised three short tales of horror from three different directors: Hong Kong’s Peter Chan (probably best known for 1996’s Comrades: Almost a Love Story); South Korea’s Kim Ji-woon (director of 2003’s cult horror hit A Tale of Two Sisters); and Thailand’s Nonzee Nimibutr (known for his ghost story Nang nak in 1999 and the soft-core Jan Dara in 2001).
For the follow-up Three . . . Extremes (2004), the producers went for higher-profile directors, two of them genre directors: Japan’s Takashi Miike and South Korea’s Park Chan-wook (director of 2002’s Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and, most recently, the 2004 Cannes prizewinner Oldboy). Fruit Chan, an indie art-movie director whose work explores the underside of Hong Kong society, seems on the face of it the odd man out. It’s true that his work contains genre elements — the gangster plots in Made in Hong Kong (1997) or The Longest Summer (1998), for example — but unlike genre cinema, the violence in those films is never the motivating force, the point to the films. Chan is looking elsewhere, at the way his characters manoeuvre themselves to greater or lesser success in order to survive at the lower levels of a harsh society. With his 40-minute Dumplings, Chan produced far and away the best contribution to Three . . . Extremes. Perhaps that’s why he’s very quickly released a longer (90 minutes) and even more successful version, Dumplings (2004).
The first thing to say about the full-length Dumplings is that it’s hardly a “horror” movie as such. Unlike the standard Asian fare, there are no supernatural killers on the loose, unnatural horrors hiding in the dark corners of a house, blood splattering across the screen. Instead, the single horror of Dumplings is its initial premise: Auntie Mei (Bai Ling) is a former PRC doctor, now living in a Hong Kong tenement and offering special dumplings that possess a rejuvenating power thanks to their unique ingredient — human fetuses. From this initial set-up — which is in any case extrapolated from traditional Chinese beliefs about how specific foods have specific health-related properties — the film then develops in an entirely realistic mode; I’d almost say naturalistic, except that Christopher Doyle’s superb cinematography, with its intense colours and sometimes off-key compositions, is anything but.
The story is centred on the characters and their relationships, and above all on what brings Ching (Miriam Yeung) to Auntie Mei’s in the first place. It’s her central character that shifts the focus of the film from the expected shock/horror genre elements to a consideration of her motivation. Ching is a former TV soap opera star (playing on Miriam Yeung’s own career, although her role here is much older than her actual age of 31) who married her show’s sponsor Mr. Lee (a silver-haired Tony Leung Ka-Fai, of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s L’Amant). Mr. Lee is now dallying with younger women, and the middle-aged Ching is desperate to reverse her fading looks and retain her husband’s interest in her. There is, of course, a social background to all of this, a modern culture that far more than in the West defines women in terms of youth and beauty, gives far less social space to older women, and inevitably treats men in an entirely different way. It’s no surprise that the screenplay is by a woman, prominent Hong Kong writer Lillian Lee (author of the novels and screenplays of Stanley Kwan’s 1987 Rouge and Chen Kaige’s 1993 Farewell My Concubine as well as Dumplings‘ original novella), who has brought a clear female perspective to the central situation — post-feminist rather than feminist, perhaps, as there is definitely no female solidarity on display here.
The film opens with a brief prologue with Auntie Mei whose significance we only later piece together (how Mei collects the source for her dumplings from a hospital in Shenzhen and smuggles it over the border into Hong Kong); but Ching provides the main narrative thread with her repeated visits to Mei and her increasing demands for and dependence on the dumplings. From the first, she knows what’s in them (we’re let into the secret just a little later), and the first high-angle shot of her eating them holds on her: the red of her lipstick balanced against the pale colours of both her face and the dumpling skin; her mixture of desire and physical revulsion until she finally forces one down.
Ching’s fear of the loss of her looks, social status, and husband (they’re all interrelated) overcomes any initial revulsion, and she’s soon pushing Auntie Mei to acquire the most ideal dumpling ingredients — a fresh male foetus, courtesy of an illegal abortion Mei performs on a pregnant teenage girl. This abortion is central to the film’s wider concerns. It’s the film’s most horrifying moment: in contrast to a standard horror film, the audience will be disturbed or even revolted by a scene that, while stylized, has a basis in absolute realism. Here the issue of class comes to the fore.
Class differences were already apparent in Ching’s first visit to the tenement block and the subsequent change of scene to her husband Mr. Lee on the rooftop swimming pool; the theme is quite explicit in the contrast between the film’s two abortions. In the first, the lower-class mother and daughter have no recourse but to an illegal and dangerous abortion performed by Mei. The second abortion is procured by Ching herself as, abandoned by Auntie Mei, she sets out to acquire the dumpling ingredients herself; the child is that of her husband’s mistress (a woman of her own class). It’s Ching’s money, her class-based wealth, that can arrange this abortion in a safe medical environment. No contrast could be stronger: this second abortion is a financial transaction between wife and mistress, where both come out winners, getting what they want. The first abortion is literally a question of existence, a matter of life and death, a situation that ultimately leads to the death of both mother and daughter.
This mother and daughter are the film’s true victims, endemic to Hong Kong’s callous, individualistic, and competitive society. Each character here is on her own. Ching is competing against every younger woman as a potential rival; in the end it is only through the power of money (a strength stronger than that of physical appearance) that she can gain victory over her rival, her husband’s mistress. But nor is there anything here like female unity in the face of these social inequities that a society favouring the male imposes on women. Ching surely is never more alone than when she hosts a gathering of her upper-class female friends and has to maintain a façade of social poise and pretense. (The scene is also grotesquely comic: an unfortunate side-effect of the dumplings is that Ching’s body is starting to smell.)
Moreover, the supportive relationship that appears to be developing between Auntie Mei and Ching proves to be entirely hollow. After Mr. Lee finds out about and pays a visit to Mei (quickly leading to sex between them), Mei simply abandons Ching — now addicted to her need for the dumplings — to her fate. From here on, Ching continues on the path she has already started along, now completely alone, callous, individualistic, and self-centred, reaching the stage where she too can manipulate another woman (her husband’s mistress), because of the power money confers on her.
At the end of the film, both Auntie Mei (now displaced from Hong Kong) and Ching are the true survivors, with their trajectory a parodical mirror-image of Hong Kong’s own capitalistic drive. It’s the particular success of Dumplings that Fruit Chan, with a larger budget, higher production values, and a cast of movie stars, has still maintained the incisive social critical stance of his earlier, rougher independent films.