I’m a pretty big fan of the Asian horror genre. It has this distinct feel that, justifiably, puts it in its own separate category when compared to horror films from the Western hemisphere. I know that sounds vague, but if you’ve ever seen some of the originals of classic American horror films (The Grudge, The Ring, The Uninvited, Dark Water, Shutter, One Missed Call, etc.) you’ll see exactly what I mean. Now like all film genres, there are even further sub-categories within the Asian horror genre itself, such as psychological horror, action horror, slasher films, apocalyptic horror, etc. (really, the list goes on). Now, the easiest way I could describe how Asian horror films differ from Western horror films, is that with the Asian horror genre you get this added level of “weirdness”. In some cases, this “weirdness” seems to make up its own sub-category within the greater overall Asian horror genre.
By that I mean, Asian horror films come close to what would be the boundary of social normality, and punch right through it; not just making a dent, but really smashing it to bits. Now, I understand I’m generalizing quite a bit, but from what I’ve seen, Asian horror films (mainly Japanese) dare to venture into territories that the Western World likely had no idea even existed. So consider this the disclaimer that some of the themes covered in this movie, and hence this review, contain subject matter that some may find offensive.
I recently took it upon myself to watch a 2004 Hong Kong horror film named Dumplings, which was directed by Fruit Chan (what a great name). This film follows the neglected, self-conscious, former actress and wife of a businessman who is desperate to maintain her youth and beauty when she realizes her husband is starting to lose interest in her and pursuing an extramarital affair with a younger woman. The wife (Mrs. Li) seeks out help from a local chef (Aunt Mei) who is rumoured to possess the means by which Mrs. Li can reclaim her youth and beauty. This is where things get a bit… weird. Aunt Mei’s area of expertise are dumplings filled with a certain special ingredient that are sold for a handsome price and are promised to be the perfect quick fix Mrs. Li was looking for to rejuvenate her looks. I think this is the appropriate time to mention that this special ingredient is aborted fetuses from the nearby abortion clinic, where Aunt Mei (a former doctor) used to work. So if you’re easily offended and emotionally affected by the topic of abortion, you’d be well off to skip this film, and perhaps this review as well.
From this relatively simple premise, the film treads deeper and deeper into darker themes, all of which reinforce the overarching question of “How far would you go to maintain your youth and beauty?” What surprised me is that there were glimpses into some realities that we see in this world: exploring society’s emphasis on aesthetics, the power and influence that money can buy, and the cultural experiences and perspectives that women have on a sensitive topic like abortion. I know at this point it probably sounds like I’m reading a bit too much into a movie that obviously gets its entertainment value from shocking and disturbing viewers, but I wouldn’t completely write this film off as another mindless horror. For instance, in the movie you witness an unsafe abortion go wrong, and while unfortunate circumstances such as these are typical of the horror theme, it’s not really far from what happens to countless numbers of women around the world.
What I like about Dumplings is that it takes a concept like narcissism, only to twist it further and further into weirder and crazier situations. I’m genuinely impressed by the ingenuity many of the scenarios possess. I like to imagine that when writing this film, this Lillian Lee individual sat down and just brainstormed twisted ideas, constantly trying to one-up her last idea until it was all finished. There wasn’t a whole bunch of character development in here, except for Mrs. Li who got crazier and more desperate as the story progressed. But hey, that leaves all the more room for effort put into plot progression, which was appropriately paced throughout.
Now, I understand that I’ve likely put a lot of hype into how disturbing this film actually is. I didn’t find it all that bad, but then again, I’ve seen a lot worse than this and I can’t really say that this film is all that easily digested (eh, bad joke). The film will get you the most with the sound effects it uses during eating scenes, which consist of off-putting slurping and crunching sounds. I was even thinking while watching the film that if the sound was muted, the film wouldn’t be all that bad. There is a bit of gore in this film, mainly shots of fetuses that I can imagine would be considered disturbing. These shots aren’t all that frequent, though, and given the year in which this film was produced (2004), I would say the sound effects were quite a bit more bothersome than the visuals.
Sex is another element that is featured quite heavily in this film. In a way, this film is equal parts sex and eating. A sort of working theme throughout this movie is desire and passion. This is mainly reflected in the obsession certain individuals have with youth and beauty, but it follows suit for sex to be a large part of this. I don’t really see it serving any other point than that unfortunately. It isn’t especially graphic (not more than you would get in any other film), but it’s something to be noted as you’re coming into this film.
Well, there you have it. This film is most definitely R-rated, and not for the easily offended or squeamish. I can imagine it would be a difficult movie to enjoy for many, but if you’re already a fan of the Asian horror genre, or are a fan of general disturbing/shocking films, this is a worthwhile addition that warrants a viewing. Enjoy (or not).