As the song says: “How far can too far go?”
Pretty damn far, this isn’t for the weak of heart or stomach. This is disturbing stuff, people. “Three… Extremes” is an anthology film with segments by some of the most prominent filmmakers of the east: Fruit Chan from China (Made in Hong Kong), Chan-wook Park (Oldboy) from South Korea, and the infamous Takashi Miike (Ichi The Killer) from Japan. Basically these three directors were allowed to do anything they wanted as long as it was, as the title says, extreme. Believe me, they took it to heart.
The First Extreme is Vanity…
Directed by Fruit Chan
An aging actress worried about losing her looks goes to see a woman about special “dumplings” that will rejuvenate her. The woman makes her the promised food and soon the actress begins to look younger and regain her sexual prowess. However, when the dumpling woman disappears, how will she continue to obtain this miracle food?
If you think this is going to be some gory twist on “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, you’re totally wrong. If you think that you know what’s inside those dumplings judging from the crunchy sounds they make. You’re totally wrong. Fruit Chan is the revelation here. Of all three segments, this is the most extreme of the bunch. The taboos being broken within could send sensitive viewers and pregnant women running to the exit. I mean it. Don’t watch this if your idea of a taboo breaking film is something loud and crude like “Last House on The Left”. This is so much worse. It’s a low-key trip through the darkest hell of vanity. Chan’s film highlights the special cruelty that women are capable of. It’s not that women are worse than men in their evils, but that their reasoning is so alien to us males. That insatiable female need to be wanted and loved is a frightening thing for a man to witness because we learn very quickly that some women will do anything, absolutely anything, to fulfill their desires.
This segment started out as a full-length film version and was cut down to 31 minutes, but I don’t believe that it could be improved with more screen time. The ambiguous ending hits just the right note with all its unanswered questions and disturbing final image. I loved it.
The Second Extreme is Jealousy…
Directed by Chan-wook Park
After returning home from work one night a famous Korean film director named Ryu is knocked out by a mysterious assailant. When he wakes up, he finds himself back on his own film set attached to a kind of big rubber band that allows him to walk around a few feet but no more. At the other end of the room, and out of reach to him, his pianist wife has been wired and crazy glued to her piano. On a nearby couch, within his reach, is a little girl that’s been tied up and gagged.
Their kidnapper is a dumpy looking sad sack of a man. He was an extra on all the director’s films and was once shown great kindness by Ryu. “I like you.” The extra tells him. “You’re a good man.” However, Ryu’s act of kindness got him thinking about the nature of good and evil and how it’s always said that the meek shall inherit the earth and that there’s a better chance of passing a camel through the eye of a needle than a rich man getting into heaven.
The extra calls bullshit on that. The rich, he says, have everything. They live better lives, bed better women, and they’re better looking, more successful and happier. On top of that they corner the market on goodness while at the other end of the spectrum men like the extra drink and beat their wives and die despised by all those around him. No way, says the extra. The rich don’t get to be good. If he’s not going to Heaven, neither is Ryu.
The extra offers Ryu a choice, kill the small child that’s tied helpless and crying on the couch, or watch as one of his wife’s fingers is cut off every five minutes that he hesitates. Just to make sure that Ryu knows he’s not screwing around, he cuts off one of her fingers right away.
The torture scenes in this segment are so brutal and disquieting that they make Marathon Man’s “dentist” scene look cheerful in comparison. Chan-wook Park is able to crank up the apprehension using camera angles and editing to the extent that we think we can’t possibly dread the next fall of the axe any more than we did the previous time, but we do.
The back and forth between Ryu and the extra also packs a real sting as the director tries everything from confession to hate filled rants against this madman. However, by the time we reach the finale we’ve given up all hope that this will end well. Just to make sure he’s crushed us completely though, Chan-wook Park unleashes a couple of nihilistic surprises along the way.
What’s really weird is that out of all three, this is the funniest segment. So take that as another warning about “Dumplings”.
The Third Extreme is Fear…
Directed by Takashi Miike
Odd that the segment made by a director renowned for pushing the limits is the least “extreme” in the pure sense of the word. I guess that when it’s held up next to the taboo destroying first part and the raw brutality of the second, one can’t help but feel that this low-key mood piece isn’t the shockfest we were expecting from Miike.
Still, don’t take it to mean that this isn’t as stunning as the first two. Miike’s story of a novelist’s guilt about her sister’s death has the creepiest imagery of all three parts, not to mention some of the most beautiful cinematography of outdoor snow since Fargo.
As children Kyoko and her twin sister Shoko were their father’s assistants in his magic show. They would do a little bit of interpretive dance, then climb into tiny boxes and disappear, to be replaced by flowers. Years, later Kyoko has grown up into a reclusive writer who lives alone in a dreary apartment and has recurring dreams of being trapped in plastic and buried in a tiny box. One day she’s mysteriously invited back to the scene of a terrible childhood accident. There, she’ll come face to face with her secrets.
It would be easy to say that the subtext in this segment is guilt or envy, but I’m not so sure. I think that it’s overpowering fear. Kyoko is consumed by it. It wafts off her like a scent. She moves and talks like a woman expecting the floor under her feet to give it out at any moment. She dreads her past because it’s not dead yet, and it’s still there waiting.
Told in a poetic, non-linear (and at times non-narrative) style “Box” is the most difficult segment to get into, and it doesn’t have the immediate payoff of the first two. However, I dig what Miike’s doing, trying to bust out of the traditional style of filmmaking and to use mood and innuendo to tell your movie instead of dialogue and action. This basically is what Izo was trying to be, but where Izo had nothing human to latch onto and just went on and on, this story has a deeply felt core and just the right length.
As for the extreme part of “Box”, it’s quieter than the other two, but just as shattering when you find out what it is. If Miike can do more stuff like Box and less like Izo he might literally accomplish what Stanley Kubrick was going for in 2001; a radical change in the way movies can be told. I’m keeping my fingers crossed because this is definitely a promising start.