Three…Extremes (2004)

Reviewed by Andrew Kasch

Starring Bai Ling, Pauline Lau, Byung-hun Lee, Won-hee Lim

Directed by Fruit Chan, Takashi Miike & Park Chan-Wook

If there’s one sub-genre that has been criminally neglected over the years, it’s the anthology film. Some ideas simply work better in small doses, and ever since the demise of Tales From The Crypt, we’ve all been seriously deprived of good old-fashioned vignette horror.

I think it’s safe to say that we haven’t had a completely successful feature film anthology venture since George A Romero’s Creepshow back in 1982. Since then many attempts have been made, but most have turned into embarrassing failures (sorry, Tales from the Hood fans). The most recent stinker was Three, a film that tried to give international audiences a sample platter of Asian horror by bringing together a trio of filmmakers from different countries. Unfortunately, the resulting segments were bland and instantly forgettable despite the presence of A Tale of Two Sisters director Ji-woon Kim.

Now, two years later, we have the follow-up: Three…Extremes (previously known as Three: Monster). In an effort to avoid past mistakes, the film’s producers assembled the who’s who of Asian cinema: Japan’s Takashi Miike, China’s Fruit Chan, and Korea’s Chan-wook Park. Needless to say, this dream team had expectations running high.

It’s pretty clear in the opening moments that this isn’t your standard ride. Don’t expect to see any ghost curses, demonic beasties, or killer puppets here. The horror in Three…Extremes takes a more realistic and psychological approach. While seemingly unrelated, all three segments explore the dark side of human nature and deal thematically with desire and choice. In essence, this is the first “art house” anthology film of the genre.

If David Lynch had directed Freaks, I’d imagine the result would feel a lot like Box, the ethereal first segment directed by genre fave Takashi Miike. The story involves Kyoko, a tortured author who has constant nightmares of being buried alive. As she becomes more reclusive, the poor girl is haunted by the spirit of her dead sister, which prompts her to confront a terrible event that occurred in their past as child contortion artists.

Fans looking for hyperactive weirdness can stop here; Miike takes a basic idea and builds his themes around a dreamscape, creating a slow-grinding visual poem. The stunning production design complements imagery that is downright eerie and gives the segment a style reminiscent of the subtle side of Asian horror. Typically, one would go mad trying to rationalize the story (and subsequent denouement), but Box works well as a piece of emotional surrealism and perfectly sets the mood of the entire film.

Fruit Chan’s Dumplings tells the story of Mrs. Lee, an aging TV star who will go to any lengths to keep her beauty. She gradually falls in with a mysterious young woman who runs a secret cooking operation out of her apartment. The title food is served and promises to reverse the aging process, but during the course of her addiction Mrs. Lee learns that its success lies within a terrible secret ingredient.

Like most viewers, I was ready to shout, “It’s people!” in full Charlton Heston bravado. Luckily, Chan stays one step ahead of his audience, revealing the unexpected (and truly disturbing) twist early on while moving his characters and themes down much darker avenues. The approach feels particularly welcome in this day and age when all horror films seem to exist strictly for the initial shock of their plot twists, rather than focusing on the unsettling implications. These elements are all the more strengthened by Christopher (Hero) Doyle’s marvelous cinematography and – for what is most likely a first in Chinese cinema – a good soundtrack.

It should be noted that Dumplings was originally produced as a 90-minute feature film while the version contained in Three…Extremes clocks in around 40 minutes. As expected, the abridged segment contains a few narrative bumps by introducing characters and sequences that seem to have little impact on the story as a whole. I haven’t seen the full version, so it’s difficult to gauge whether Chan’s short feels too drawn out or not long enough. Nevertheless, Dumplings still succeeds as a memorable and intelligent art-house shocker and is guaranteed to give even its toughest viewers a good squirm.

The best is usually saved for last, and Chan-wook Park’s Cut proves to be no exception. The director of Joint Security Area and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance has been a long-time favorite among Asian cinema fans and proved himself to be one of the world’s top filmmakers with last year’s critically acclaimed masterpiece Oldboy. Park’s Cut involves a big-time movie director who is abducted from his home by a psychopathic film extra. Waking on the closed set of his new film, the stunned filmmaker finds himself forced to take part in a long series of mind games and one final sadistic choice.

It’s very difficult to praise Cut without delving into heavy spoilers. But, as viewers of Park’s films already know, this seemingly simple story gives way to a totally cerebral experience. Nothing is ever (no pun intended) cut and dried here. There are no true protagonists or antagonists – only real and flawed characters that are placed in the most outlandish situations imaginable. The horrific violence is executed in a way that is both beautiful and excruciating, like Dario Argento with a heavy emotional edge. All the trademarks are to be found here as the director once again serves up the kind of edgy filmmaking that has been absent from the screen in recent years. In the end Cut emerges as the most brutal, intense, and imaginative installment and perfectly continues Chan-wook Park’s streak of cinematic excellence.

After a disappointing year for horror films, Three … Extremes actually lives up to expectations and puts a welcome spark back into an abused sub-genre. In a counter-culture overrun with pompous and pretentious amateurs, these short films showcase the genuine talent of true artists and give us a taste of what real subversive cinema is all about.

(Applause Pictures)
Directed by Fruit Chan, Takashi Miike, and Chan-wook Park
Starring Byung-hun Lee, Ling Bai, Miriam Yeung Chin Wah, and Kyoko Hasegawa

4 out of 5

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