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).
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 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.
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.