‘Three… Extremes’ Takes Over the Phoenix Film Festival

Today we’ve posted our first report (of three) from the 1st annual International Horror/Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix, AZ, presented by the Phoenix Film Festival. Inside you’ll find a lengthy review of Lions Gate Films’ Three… Extremes, which hits select theaters this Friday. Click here to read a synopsis for each of the three featured short films and then read on for the review…
International Horror/Sci-Fi Film Festival 2005
Evening 1 of 3: (Phoenix, AZ)
By: Michael Tank

Hey, B-D people! I was able to attend the three main event screenings at the 1st annual International Horror/Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix, AZ, presented by the Phoenix Film Festival.

Evening 1- ‘Three…Extremes”

The 1st main attraction on Friday night was a screening of “Three…Extremes”, a horror anthology (of sorts) featuring 3 short films by 3 of Asia’s top filmmakers. The title of the film, and the pedigree of the talent behind it, would seem to suggest that these stories are going to push the limits of what you can take as far as the intensity and violence of the content therein. And, uh, make no mistake, it has its share of ultra-queasy, how-much-can-you-take moments (particularly in the 1st segment), but really the title refers to a common theme running throughout the films: the extremes that people push themselves to for their individual obsessions, whether it be fear of aging, envy of someone else’s success, or a bad case of sibling rivalry.

The 1st of the trio is “Dumplings”, directed by Fruit Chan, a filmmaker whose work I’m not familiar with, and after looking him up on IMDB, I now know why: this is his first venture into the horror genre. “Dumplings” is the story of aging TV actress Mrs. Li (Miriam Yeung) who, tired of feeling unwanted by her wealthy, adulterous husband (Tony Leung), seeks out one Aunt Mei (the gorgeous Bai Ling of “The Crow”), famous (or infamous) for her special brand of dumplings, the recipe of which contains a most unpleasant crucial ingredient, but is said to have miraculous rejuvenating qualities. It works rather well for Mrs. Li, once she gets past the initial chore of trying not to think about what exactly she’s ingesting. Indeed, her first meal at Aunt Mei’s is a wonderfully queasy scene, with particularly effective sound effects as she puts mind over matter and just chows down, crunching and grimacing, as Aunt Mei, always the good host, cheerfully sings an old Asian traditional for her to mark the occasion.

There are quite a few not-for-the-weak-of-stomach moments in this segment, especially when the tone of the film takes a serious turn involving a mother who brings her very young daughter to see Aunt Mei to provide for her, after a nauseating “medical” procedure, another crucial “ingredient” for her next batch of dumplings. A scene later involving a man taking the wrong seat on a bus is also effectively gruesome, and ends in a tragically moving way. The final set piece of the short, involving Mrs. Lei in a bathtub improvising, in a very personal manner, her own take on the title meal, is a delicious (sorry, but it’s true) scene. Try not to get a wicked laugh from her last look. This opening segment works very well, and based on this piece alone, I look forward to anything else coming from Fruit (it’s fun to call him that), horror or no.

Advance word from audiences around the globe who have seen this trio is that “Dumplings” is the only one worth a damn in this set, to which I say, “Excuse me?! Did you all even stick around for the next film?” Because, for my money, Park Chan-Wook’s “Cut” was, hands down (again, sorry for the bad joke), the best of the three. And I’m not just saying that as a result of bias for absolutely loving his “Oldboy” from last year. (Honestly, I’m not. But I’ll get to that later.)

“Cut” opens with an exhilarating scene involving what looks like the opening to a wonderfully operatic Asian vampire tale, only to dizzyingly (and hilariously) reveal itself as the opening of a tale about a massively popular film director (Lee Byung-hun) and his crew hard at work on his latest masterwork. The director heads home for the day to his exquisite home (which the set of the vampire film has been meticulously modeled after), only to be confronted and knocked unconscious (via aerosol fire!) by a disgruntled extra (Lim Won-hee) who has worked in the background scenes of most of his films, and has decided to punish the director, not for his excessive wealth and notoriety, but because the young auteur has (seemingly) legitimately earned his standing by being just plain decent. His plan, which takes place entirely on the film set that is the exact replica of the director’s lavish main living room, involves the filmmaker’s young wife intricately tied to her beloved grand piano, across the room from a young girl tied to the couch, with the director tethered to the opposite wall and being told by the hilariously smug “commoner” extra that he must commit a heinous, horrible act, (i.e. strangle the life from the young helpless child on the couch) in order to “equalize” the two men. Otherwise, his pretty young wife will lose her fingers, one by one, to the rather sharp axe the extra has been brandishing (effectively ending her beloved piano-playing activities).

This segment is all deliriously funny, bordering on camp (especially during my favorite shot of the extra, the wife, and the child all watching as the director debases himself after being ordered to do “something funny!”), but is reigned in nicely in the closing, turning serious and disturbing once the director makes up his mind to “solve” this hideous dilemma, during which the actual identity of one of the principals in this room is revealed. I was really wrapped up in this one, easily the fastest moving of the three (which was soon to be proven), and the most outwardly, exuberantly, entertaining. What can I say? Park Chan-wook is the real deal.

As I said before, the pace of the trilogy up until now was moving nicely. Then Takashi Miike’s effort “Box” came up. Which brings me to my comment before about which segment I was looking forward to the most. As much as I wanted to see “Cut”, THIS was actually the 1 I was anticipating (as in gleefully dreading) the greatest. When I saw Miike’s “Audition” a few years ago, it seriously took me about a week to get my jaw off the floor. That was 1 unforgettable pay-off to a (admittedly, by Miike himself) deliberately slooow build-up. Just when you thought you would soon be finished with a, yeah, interesting, but mostly ho-hum Japanese version of “Fatal Attraction”, the scene with the mailbag shows up. Followed by the “vomit supper”. And, I swear, I could not get that last 10 excruciating minutes out of my head for quite some time, with that young girl’s malevolent smile as she administered her little special brand of emasculation, all the while quietly muttering “Kiti! Kiti! Kiti!” in her singsong voice.

In other words, Takashi’s “Box” was the one to beat going in, for my money. “Box” tells the story of a young author who keeps having dreams of her past as a child circus performer, a career that ended in a tragic accident involving her twin sister and their mentor/stepfather (who bears a remarkably suspect resemblance to the young writer’s editor). These dreams always end with her suffocating in plastic, trapped inside a box, seemingly being buried alive by an unknown person. To cause even more duress, the ghost of her dead sister has been appearing in the downstairs hallway.

To say “Box” was more than a little under whelming is to do it a bit of an injustice. I mean, to be fair, like I said before, Miike is all about the long purposeful exposition. The effect of his build-up factors in later, when the pieces of the puzzle have been put together to form the whole, or rather, in the case of this artist, when the canvas has been filled and the painting completed. (Excuse me while I slap myself for slipping into pretension). Anyway, as the 1st half of this segment unfolded, I watched attentively, soaking in the details, waiting for some sort of horrific denouement, one that will hopefully have just (or at least half) as much of an impact as I expected from him. And, unfortunately, other than one very unsettling shot of one of the characters peering out from a certain titular object, and another quick shot of a character towards the end that startlingly reveals the truth of their physical makeup, the segment is more tone poem (it’s definitely the most beautifully shot of the 3) than horror story, making it (as it is the last of the 3 “Extremes”), borderline anti-climactic, and more than a little out of place with the previous two, even as artfully done as they were. Still, I was still thinking of this one after it was over. Just not in the same vein as the first two. It stands too far apart from the content of the rest of the film, a little too languid, especially after the rush of “Cut”.

In all, “Three…Extremes” is an incredibly interesting, if wildly uneven, example of some of the better, more highbrow, elements of Asian horror, made by three of the arguably brightest and most exciting talents in that particular industry.

And, yeah, afterwards, in honor of “Dumplings”, we all went out for Chinese.