Tony Leung Ka-fai
2 Hrs., 5 Mins.
Three ... Extremes
ecause both are omnibus films, it is wiser to consider Three … Extremes (2004) more a fresh onslaught of tonally synchronous stories than a diametrical sequel to 2002’s Three. Conceptually, the films, akin to other vignette-dependent forays into the macabre, from 1963’s phantasmic Black Sabbath to 1968’s stylish Spirits of the Dead, are calibrated. For a little more than 120 minutes, we will watch a triad of short films, each almost exactly 40 minutes in length, unfold. They
have been fastened together to make a feature-length, apparently, for the sake of elaborated commercial appeal.
Three was a low-budget project linking together the cinematic night terrors of low-profile but nonetheless gifted filmmakers; Three … Extremes capitalizes on the concept and expands the budget and scope. Making use of more-esteemed directors (this time, East Asian auteurs Fruit Chan, Park Chan-wook, and Takashi Miike are the ones collaborating), it comes to look like an antic offshoot of the short-story collections of Lovecraft or Kafka. The trimmed-down running time of each story magnifies the phantasmagory, even if the time constraint cannot, of course, really permit any of the films to be much more than difficult-to-wash-off, skin-burrowing incubi. But these filmmakers’ horror-genre savoir-faire is so formidable, the slightest of a chill is bound to knock one off balance anyway.
The first movie, called "Dumplings" and helmed by Chan, is the most unvarnished of the spotlighted shorts. In it, a greying, retired actress who goes by Mrs. Li (Miriam Yeung) begins a business partnership of sorts with a delphic local dumpling-maker named Mei (Bai Ling). Word of mouth says that Mei’s product, comprising ingredients I’d prefer to not mention here, has the faculty to make even the most puckered of women look inordinately young again. (When Mrs. Li is asked to guess how old Mei is, the former infers that her hostess is, at the most, in her 30s. Mei laughs: she admits that she’s actually much, much older than that.)
The same year Three ... Extremes was released, "Dumplings" was expanded into a 90-minute feature film. Though unseen by me, I assume that the longer take, which also centrally calls into question how scary a thing the societal fetishization of youth can be, is able to delve into the more complicated cultural implications the short contains. The abbreviated "Dumplings" is merely unnerving. Though with its almost-phlegmatic presentation of unthinkable horrors, and its ASMR-like, grotesque sound design, it is an epigrammatic incursion into the morbid that helps prepare us for the remainder of Three … Extremes.
In comparison to “Cut,” the second, Park-headed part of the movie, “Dumplings” seems bonhomous: it manages to condense Grand Guignol-tinged grotesqueries, gallows humor, and moral imbalance into a pithy, disquieting statement. Principally a story told in one setting, it is wrapped up in a dire plight. An unnamed filmmaker (Lee Byun-hun) and his manicured pianist wife (Kang Hye-jung) have been kidnapped by an obsessive, mentally unstable actor (Im Won-hee) who wants to play a Jigsaw-esque game. The director, tied to the wall with a rubber-band-like rope, must strangle a young boy the actor abducted as part of his maniacal quest. For every five minutes the director abstains from killing the actor’s child victim, the actor will cut off one of the wife’s fingers. The reason? The actor resents the director’s success and alleged virtuosity and wants to test his morality.
Like “Dumplings," “Cut” pushes the limits of the central characters’ morality. Park, though, seems acutely aware that it is, perhaps, foolish to try to imbue the film with philosophical depth with this limited a running time. So he tweaks the formula by allowing for the protagonist to become a not-so-virtuous anti-hero, and the wife something more than a hapless victim. In doing so, Park shifts our expectations. The short at first appears to be mostly centered around one man’s fucked-with ethical worldview, but then it shifts the upturned, interrogation-room desk lamp onto us. In the confines of a horror movie, what will it take to make us decide that violence should or shouldn’t be inflicted upon someone? Park, underscoring the brief film in the blackened sense of humor that would come to be among his trademarks later on — his acidic family drama Stoker, from 2013, immediately comes to mind — takes the movie beyond its Poe-recalling histrionics.
The final, and best, module of Three … Extremes, Miike’s “Box,” is the uncanniest of the shorts, and recapitulates the reality-blurring dread of his 1999 masterpiece, Audition. In the piece, a 25-year-old novelist, Kyoko (Kyōko Hasegawa), is haunted by recurring dreams revolving around her traumatic past, during which she performed in a circus as a child. The visions usually involve her being buried alive, but she always wakes up before she can make sense of what her subconscious is trying to tell her. In “Box,” Kyoko will attempt to make sense of her nightmares, which, as we will come to find out, are rooted in a gruesome tragedy. Miike, ever story-imperiling, eventually guides us to an audacious ending; the ride up is replete with imagery recalling the surrealistic twinges of 1960’s Jigoku, which infamously spent much time in the underworld.
In toto, the shorts encompassing Three … Extremes vary in how they make one squirm. In common, though, is their commitment to dextrously frightening us. A great many horror-centric omnibus features scare but do so in a cinematic, fanciful way. Three … Extremes is cinematic, all right. But Chan’s, Park’s, and Miike’s ingraining of moral tests and everyday pitfalls à la grief and vainglory into their respective vignettes help make their products more than passingly eerie. B+