Watching the feature-length version of “Dumplings,” Hong Kong helmer Fruit Chan’s seg in pan-Asian horror omnibus “Three… Extremes” (Variety, Oct. 11), is like having a coversheet pulled back on a picture only partly glimpsed. With almost an hour of extra footage added to the 37-minute episode and complete subplots revealed, this is not just an extended version but a whole, superior new movie. With “Extremes” already sold to several territories, including the U.S. where Lions Gate bought rights, this reps a tricky marketing proposition but more than deserves distribution as a blackly humorous psychodrama in its own right.
Pic was released in Hong Kong mid-August (prior to “Extremes” unspooling at the Venice and Pusan fests), where it grossed a moderate HK$6 million ($770,000). It goes out in Taiwan Nov. 12, and could be a handsome item for Western festivals early next year.
Story of a former soap opera actress who eats a Mainland woman’s special dumplings in her quest to obtain eternal youth, the omnibus version worked especially well as a highly condensed tale that hinted at more than it ever showed. Amazingly, the full-length version maintains the same mystery and allusiveness while fleshing out the characters, and adds further, deliciously nasty twists to its central theme.
All characters gain depth and background which benefits the movie. Trashy Mainland immigrant Mei (Bai Ling) is a former singer-turned-doctor-turned-abortionist whose patented dumplings provide a lifeline for Qing (comedienne Miriam Yeung, in her first serious role), a retired actress whose marriage to businessman Li (Tony Leung Kar-fai) has sexually stalled. What’s now clear, from several extra scenes, is that Li himself, who eats eggs containing chicken fetuses, is equally obsessed with maintaining his sexual allure. This leads him to also seek out Mei’s services, with surprising results.
Pic thus becomes a sly allegory on Mainland-Hong Kong relations, with an entrepreneurial, immigrant underclass exploiting the dreams of a wealthy, Westernized upper class. The joke, though, is not all at Hong Kong’s expense: A vicious new ending, centered on Qing and Li’s mistress (Meme), shows Hong Kongers bringing a ruthless, bottom-line mentality to tricks learned from the Mainland, and Mei left economically disenfranchised back home.
Other characters are also beefed up, with the subplot of a mother (Wong So-fun) and her pregnant teenage daughter (Miki Yeung) and its repercussions on Qing fully explained.
In her first role in a Hong Kong movie, Mandarin-speaking Bai is superb as the trashy, splay-legged, betel nut-chewing Mainlander, while the Cantonese-speaking Yeung, dressed like a heroine from a ’50s Douglas Sirk movie, reveals completely unexpected sensual depths as the desperate wife. Helmer Fruit Chan, previously known for his indie pics, has actually been down this horror road before (in “Hollywood, Hong Kong”), but not with the same high-style assists from lenser Christopher Doyle, production designer Yee Chun-man and costume designer Dora Ng, all at the top of their game.