Devotees of Asian cinema -- especially those with a thirst for blood -- will probably delight in the unofficial sequel to 2002's horror sampler Three. Like its predecessor, Three . . . Extremes is a trilogy of short films that root around in the dark regions of the psyche and conclude that human behavior is pretty appalling. Stylistically diverse but united by their intention to chill, these shorts provide another broad hint about the reach and range of the new Asian filmmakers. This is like a good three-course meal served by ghosts at midnight, in spooky candlelight.
For the purposes of this project, Hong Kong director Fruit Chan (Hollywood Hong Kong) consented to create an abridgement of his 90-minute feature Dumplings, an unsettling variation on the old fountain-of-youth theme that may have you squirming in your seat from the outset. I haven't seen the full-length version, but in this case there may be something to be said for judicious editing: in about 35 minutes, the filmmaker calmly and dispassionately reveals the awful bargain an aging TV actress (Miriam Yeung) strikes with vanity. Concerned that her looks are fading and her indifferent husband has gone astray, she visits a mysterious woman, Aunt Mei (Ling Bai), whose magical dumplings are said to reverse the aging process. As it happens, Dorian Gray himself couldn't make a more fateful choice. For that matter, neither could the expectant mother in Rosemary's Baby. There's no point in disclosing the crucial ingredient in Aunt Mei's crunchy potstickers, but if you yearn for a bit of social context with your horror, Fruit happily provides: He not only addresses the question of female self-esteem in today's China, he grapples, horrifyingly, with the gender bigotry that underlies it. Little wonder that the screenwriter here is a woman, Lillian Lee.
The middle segment of Three . . . Extremes, South Korean director Park Chan-wook's Cut, is by far the most extroverted of the three, and despite its bloody plot, the most humorous. When a famous movie director (Lee Byung-hun) and his pianist wife (Gang Hye-jung) are taken hostage on a studio set by a resentful former movie extra (Won-hee Lim), Chan-wook lets fly with all manner of Grand Guignol effects while the camera leaps around the room like a whirling dervish. Committed to his task, the enthusiastic terrorist performs a lively buck-and-wing for his captives (remember the droogs' happy mockery of "Singin' in the Rain" in A Clockwork Orange?), then presents his former "employer" with the kind of horrifying moral choices that can destroy a mind. Last year's gory thriller Saw has nothing on the casual sadism in Cut, but another new art house film just might: While Chan-wook gives us the queasies by tossing some severed fingers into a kitchen blender, the makers of Hard Candy one-up him with the notion of dumping its hostage's testicles down a Dispose-All. In any event, the Korean filmmaker (Oldboy) takes such glee in dismemberment and psychic discombobulation that you may start to wonder what new ends the slasher-flick has gotten to.
The surreal third episode of Three . . . Extremes owes less to Polanski or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre than to Buñuel and Dalí. Directed by Japan's Takashi Miike (Audition), Box enters the vivid mindscape of a beautiful novelist (Kyoko Hasegawa) who's haunted by the fiery death, in childhood, of her twin sister. Horror movies have long exploited the profound bonding of twins -- and the potential for intense sibling rivalry -- but Miike takes those dueling ideas to truly extreme lengths. Between its vision of intertwined ballerinas winding their way through a dance of death to its persistent image of boxes -- confining boxes shackled by padlocks, boxes buried in snowy fields, strangely tinkling music boxes, striped boxes that invoke both Un Chien Andalou and the myth of Pandora, with its notion of evils loosed in the world -- Box gets inside our heads with a kind of insidious grace. It unfolds with the relentless irrationality of a nightmare, but in the end it makes perfect sense, as if the night itself had pulled a nasty trick on us.
Connoisseurs of horror are bound to play favorites here (this amateur votes for Box), but there's one more thing that connects these three films -- the brilliant cinematography of Christopher Doyle (2046). Amazingly, he perfectly suits three directors with three completely different ideas about lighting, shot selection and camera movement. If Oscar voters are in a mood to hand out an award for versatility this year, Doyle's got to be their man.