Bright Lights Film Journal

The Immortality Blues: Talking with Fruit Chan About Dumplings

And other tasty subjects

Fruit Chan’s Dumplings provoked unprecedented attention at the 2005 Melbourne International Film Festival, first and foremost because of its controversial and idiosyncratic narrative, but also because it was screened as part of the program dedicated to the work of the Hong Kong iconoclast. Since his first and probably most significant and renowned film, Made in Hong Kong, Chan’s work, engaging and rich in texture, has been characterised by potent social and political overtones. The filmmaker has also constantly demonstrated the ability to literally “reinvent” himself, turning his attention to new, intriguing, and often controversial issues. From disgruntled soldiers discarded by the Hong Kong branch of the British Army in The Longest Summer, to the urban underclass in the city obsessed with business in Little Cheung, to the daily life of a prostitute in Durian Durian, Chan always strives to bring to the screen small personal stories with intense political commentary.

It is not surprising that in Dumplings and its shorter version Three Extremes (an omnibus, containing a 40-minute version of the film as well as films by Park Chan wook and Miike Takeshi), Chan’s critical and aesthetic gaze turns towards desperate quests for youth and immortality. In business-crazy Hong Kong, Mei, an elderly Chinese lady with the body of a thirty-something, makes dumplings with aborted human fetuses that bring eternal youth to those who taste them. Human placentas have long been prescribed in traditional Chinese medicine. What if they are also a source of everlasting beauty and youth? As traditional Chinese beliefs intertwine with contemporary bioethical dilemmas, Chan examines the human yearning for eternal youth, age-defying drugs and treatments. He exposes the clash between the universal quest for immortality and disappointments and challenges facing those prepared to pay any price to satisfy this incontestable consumer priority.

The rise in popularity of East and Southeast Asian films in the West continues. How do you see the current situation in Hong Kong cinema and its role in the Asian film boom?

Hong Kong cinema has been extremely productive since the mid-1980s, but now we have a stagnation period that has been going on for almost five years. There are many reasons for this: economic factors, DVD industry, problems with distributors, and DVD releases. With the rise of Korean and Thai film, Hong Kong lost its mainstream market. The market is now smaller, and one can make it bigger only by combining finance from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Hong Kong film industry is trying to open the Chinese market, but it’s tough, because the system is different.

The expansion of post-production facilities in Thailand, China, and Australia is also affecting the Hong Kong movie industry.

Post-production facilities in Thailand and Melbourne are extremely competitive because of their quality, while the same facilities in Hong Kong are old. There are no new investments in post-production, and more moviemakers have decided to go offshore.

The “old guard” of Hong Kong cinema is also showing signs of weariness.

Yes. The legends of Hong Kong film, Tsui Hark, and John Woo, have not been successful in the past couple of years. Their films are not as successful as they used to be.

How do you see the present-day moviegoers?

Another problem is that we’re dealing with different audience habits — new generations don’t go to the movies that often; with DVDs and home movie theatres many opt to stay at home. Even triads are not investing in Hong Kong film anymore. In Hong Kong, everyone wants to make quick money, and when even triads do not want to invest in the film industry, that proves that Hong Kong cinema is in crisis.

How did you start working on Dumplings?

In July 2004, I spoke to my producer Peter [Ho-Sun] Chan. I wanted to make a horror film as a part of an omnibus with Park Chan-wook and Miike Takashi, titled Three Extremes. I decided to work on a 40-minute version of Lillian Lee’s novella. Later on, I decided to expand it into a 90-minute film.

The main poetic motif in Dumplings is the quest for youth, our desire to “beat death” — the frontier that the contemporary world hasn’t reached yet. It’s becoming more significant today with people traveling to Russia and China, where the (still legal) treatment of using dead human fetuses can supposedly help them rejuvenate themselves. Did you find inspiration for this story in traditional Chinese medicine?

The film is related to popular beliefs in South China. There, some people still believe that if you eat liver, your liver function will improve, if you drink blood — animal, of course (laughter) — your blood will improve. Gall bladder is good against cough, monkey brain is good for brain, and a fetus can, some believe, give permanent youth to those who eat them.

Why is this activity presented in the form of business?

Hong Kong is famous for its business energy and acumen. Nowadays, in the field of cosmetics there is a lot of money to be earned. So I played with the idea that using a human fetus to permanently recover one’s beauty and youth could be a (laughter) good business opportunity. Mei (Bai Ling) obviously thinks she could make some money out of this.

Is there special significance to the Kowloon high-rise area? You often use this area in your films.

If you live on the Hong Kong Island, there’s a chance you might perceive people from Kowloon as low class, rough, uneducated. Some people I know live in Hong Kong Island and go to Kowloon once a year. Some like to avoid it, but it’s difficult. Approximately 50 percent of Hong Kong’s population live in “low-class” government housing. And there are different types of government housing. If you remember Made in Hong Kong(Chan’s first film — B.T.), there were various types of government housing there, ones with a long corridor, with an enclosed courtyard, etc. Some architects who saw my films instantly recognized the idea behind this “stylish” exploration of Hong Kong architecture and found it fascinating. The building in which Mei lives was built in the 1950s, I think, in the first generation of public housing in Hong Kong. Before this period there was no government housing, but after the big fire in which the old huts were destroyed, the planning and building started. I’m a Hong Kong director, and in Hong Kong movies I like to show local culture.

I remember the manic scrubbing in Durian Durian. Is it related to your characters’ obsession with cosmetics in Dumplings?

Not really. In Durian Durian, the working prostitute took ten or more baths a day, depending on the number of clients. That’s the reason why the only time when she is relaxed is while taking a bath — when she travels away to visit her family in the country.

How did you find working with Christopher Doyle? Do you think your films are now marked with the similar visual signature as those of Wong kar Wai and Pen-ek Ratanaruang?

No (laughter). Even if I had a producer and money to make a Wong kar Wai film, I wouldn’t know how to do it. I make different kinds of films. Doyle is amazing, and very creative. Before, I used to make movies with my old crew, and I was the boss on location. Now I had to make compromises, try to use his ideas in order to show the horror and the female struggle with herself in the film. Compared to my old movies,Dumplings looks completely different. And this is thanks to Christopher Doyle.

What is your next project?

My next project will be filmed in China at the end of 2005. It is a comedy, and I am again reflecting on different aspects of Chinese traditional culture (chuckling) — to some extent it is about sport, the Olympic Games. I would like to concentrate on China in this film and I hope to do that with the same kind of energy I used in my previous films. My films are energetic, even when they are sad. They have emotions, feelings.