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Bold, Thought-Provoking, if Uneven, Asian Art-Horror

Three... Extremes, an anthology of short films directed by three of Asia's most notable (and, in one case, infamous) directors, explores the periphery of the horror genre, focusing not on the comforting distance provided by supernatural forces or monsters, but on human-made horrors. Each short film in the anthology has a one-word, neutral title, "Dumplings", "Cut", and "Box", and in the hands of Fruit Chan ("Dumplings"), Chan-wook Park ("Cut"), and Takashi Miike ("Box"), freely flowing blood (and other bodily fluids), realistic gore, and violent reversals are to be expected. All three shorts feature striking production design, convincing performances, and more importantly, the blackest of black humor mixed with revulsion, and terror.

In "Dumplings", directed by filmmaker Fruit Chan (Hollywood Hong Kong, Made in Hong Kong) and photographed by Christopher Doyle (Wong Kar Wai's favorite cinematographer) in a crisp, naturalistic film style, a former actress married to a wealthy businessman, Li Qing (Miriam Yeung), seeks the services of an enigmatic chef, Mei (Ling Bai), who offers her clients the unique possibility of reversing the aging process and renewed sexual attractiveness. Mei has developed a super-secret recipe for dumplings. The dumplings, of course, contain a ghoulishly grisly ingredient. Once Qing discovers the hidden ingredient, in Grand Guignol fashion, she faces a dilemma, to continue to eat the dumplings, and hope that they have their promised, intended effects, or age somewhat gracefully, without the benefit of Mei's dumplings.

"Dumplings" is probably the most straightforward of the three films. If "Dumplings" has any weaknesses, it's in Chan's inability to end the film on the first fadeout (he waits until the third or fourth), well after Li Qing's storyline has exhausted itself.

"Cut", written and directed by Chan-wook Park (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) centers on three characters, a director (Byung-hun Lee), his pianist wife, (Hye-jeong Kang), and an emotionally disturbed man, (Won-hie Lim) who invades the director's home to wreck havoc on the director, due to a pathological resentment for the his professional success and his seemingly happy marriage. The man forces the director, now tied up and unable to defend himself or protect his wife from the man's violently destructive behavior, and proceeds to torture the director into a state of hysteria and near-insanity.

Given Park's involvement as writer/director (and the title of the short film), it should come as no surprise that "Cut" involves graphic, sadomasochistic violence. "Cut" is also the most stylized of the three films, opening with a film-within-a-film and taking place on a film set that closely mirrors the director's home in furniture and décor. Alas, "Cut" is also the most predictable of the three films, despite Park's obvious mastery of suspense building and tension through layered revelations and the introduction of a fourth character into the mix, which forces the director to make a choice between two soul-destroying alternatives. When the director makes his last, irrevocable choice, it makes little sense, due to Park's failure to properly lay the groundwork for his decision. Park also indulges in distracting, CGI-aided transitions between shots or scenes (including one borrowed from C.S.I. and its progeny).

In "Box", directed by Takashi Miike (The Happiness of the Katakuris, Ichi the Killer), a highly successful, reclusive novelist, Kyoko (Kyoko Hasegawa), finds it impossible to return her editor's, (Atsuro Watabe) touch. The editor closely resembles someone once close to Kyoko. Kyoko's reclusive nature and inability to make or nurture relationships can be traced back to a traumatic childhood incident that left her sister dead and her father missing. Kyoko apparently has been unable to locate her still missing father (how much she's tried is left to the viewer to decide). One day, Kyoko receives a bouquet of flowers and an anonymous invitation for a meeting at the isolated location where her sister died tragically years ago. A curious, if hesitant, Kyoko accepts the invitation. What she finds there, of course, isn't what she (or the audience) expected, but her subconscious desires play a significant role in the outcome.

With "Box" Miike decided to take a different route than Chan or Park, eschewing a straightforward storytelling for an elliptical, oblique approach meant to represent the central character's fragile state of mind. Miike creates an almost oneiric atmosphere through his shooting style (that minimizes camera movement and emphasizes empty spaces), slipping between Kyoko's dreams, (possible) hallucinations, encounters with her editor, and flashbacks to her traumatic childhood and her idiosyncratic relationships with her sister and father. Jealousy, envy, even sexual desire all play a role in the tragic accident. If anything, this is a kindler, gentler, Miike, one who seems to have taken a page from Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, Pulse, an underrated, underseen Japanese director whose body of work is best described as "art-horror"). It's a fitting description for Three… Extremes as well.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars