It’s a pretty sure bet that “Three…Extremes” is one Asian psychological horror movie that won’t be grist for the Hollywood remake mill. The studios would never touch any of the three parts of the anthology film, two because they’re so grisly and provocative in terms of their content, and the third because it’s so rarefied and poetic. Its controversial character isn’t all that makes the picture such a guilty pleasure, but it helps.
The film starts out with a bang with Hong Kong director Fruit Chan’s genuinely creepy and unsettling “Dumplings.” It’s about an aging actress who, in fear of losing her well-heeled husband to a younger woman, tries to revivify herself by eating some special dumplings served up by a strange woman who cooks them with a very special filling–the chopped-up flesh and bone of aborted fetuses. But needless to say, there are side effects. The next installment is Korean Park Chan-Wook’s “Cut,” in which a successful movie director is tortured by a crazed extra, who hooks up the helmer’s wife, a concert pianist, to her instrument and demands that her husband, tied and otherwise unable to intervene, kill a young child in order to prevent her fingers from being chopped off one by one. Finally, Japanese director Takashi Miike’s “Box” is a somber, nightmarish piece about a troubled young female writer tormented by her guilt in the long-ago death of her twin sister, with whom she performed in a circus act as a pair of child contortionists.
The three items differ radically in their approaches and tones. Chan opts for a look that mingles realism so gritty that it’s sometimes almost nauseating (it’s just about as upsetting to watch a person chewing on a dumpling with this particular filling as it would be to eat one) with more dreamlike, sterile moments. (The story is, of course, a fertility allegory as wrenching as some of those one finds in ancient Greek myth.) Park, on the other hand, employs the same sort of overheated baroque style that he exhibited in his revenge features, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and “Oldboy,” but the confined setting here gives it an even wilder feel. Miike differs from both in choosing an impressionistic, almost ethereal visual mood reflecting his tale’s brooding psychological underpinnings. Each of the three episodes has unique virtues–and a few weaknesses–but they all share a genuinely disturbing quality, as well as some moments of dark, mordant humor. (Indeed, “Dumplings” will probably unnerve some viewers to such an extent that they’ll be unable to sit through it.)
The acting is distinctly secondary to the direction and cinematography in pieces such as these–which is why we should mention the outstanding contributions made by D.P.s Christopher Doyle, Chung Chung-Hoon and Koichi Kawakami, respectively–but some of the performances still stand out. In “Dumplings,” Miriam Yeung is appropriately serene as the customer and Bai Ling grubbily down-to-earth as her unorthodox “helper,” Auntie Mei, and in “Cut,” Lee Byung-Hun earns audience sympathy as the brutalized director (though Lim Won-Hee, as his tormentor, might have tried a pinch of restraint). Kyoko Hasegawa catches the quietly fearful aspect of the troubled heroine of “Box,” although what one may remember most are the faces of the twin sisters of earlier days, played by Mai and Yuu Suzuki.
Technically this is overall a polished package, though each element bears the imprint of a separate crew. What matters most, though, is that taken together its various parts will grab you and keep you fascinated for more than two hours, even though at times you might feel an understandable urge to turn away. Not a dish for the faint of heart, perhaps, but for those with a taste for cruelty with a side order of irony and a dash of gore, “Three…Extremes” will be a perversely delicious treat.