2½ stars (out of four)
"Three Extremes" is a bloody strange movieand a surprise. Who would have thought that you could put together an anthology of "extreme" Asian horror featurettes by three cutting-edge Asian directors where the most tasteful, restrained contribution was the one by Japanese mad dog moviemaker Takashi Miike?
Miike, for those less-versed in midnight movies, is the hyperactive helmer of such wildly offbeat crime, horror and dark slapstick movies as the "Dead or Alive" trilogy, "Ichi the Killer," "Full Metal Yakuza" and the still-unreleased "Multiple Personality Detective Psycho." Making up to eight movies a year since 1991, Miike rarely pauses for a breath, let alone good taste.
But in "Three Extremes," he takes a back seat in gore to two less inhibited colleagues: Korea's Park Chan-Wook (maker of the 2004 Cannes Grand Prize winner "Old Boy") and Hong Kong's lesser-known Fruit Chan ("Made in Hong Kong"). Compared to their screamfests, Miike's "Box" seems almost elegant, more akin to Val Lewton's literate, jewel-like '40s B-horror tales. It's a lyrical horror thriller about a tormented novelist, Kyoko (Kyoko Hasegawa) and her dark memories of her time as a child actress with her now-dead twin and the man who exploited them. In the "Ring"/"Grudge" vein but a bit gentler, "Box's" effect, something like that of the classic ghost movie "Kwaidan," relies on a sustained eerie mood and shimmering poetic imagery.
Winner of the tasteless shock award this time is Chan's stomach-turning "Dumplings," in which an aging, amoral actress (Miriam Yeung) tries to recover her youth and looks through the allegedly magical foodstuffs cooked up by elderly but still stunning Mei (Bai Ling). Since Mei's previous occupation was as an abortionist, it isn't hard to guess where this movie is going. But for me it arrived without style or shudders: offensive but dull.
Park's "Cut," is stylish and extreme, and it's the best of the three. Another of Park's wild, bloody revenge thrillers, uncoiling with concentrated fury, it's about a successful, arrogant film director, Ryu (Lee Byung-Hun), who comes home to his posh digs from a hard day on the latest vampire saga to discover an angry movie extra (Lim Won-Hee) intent on driving him mad with real terror.
While the extra glowers, capers and clowns, Ryu watches his own wife (Gang Hye-Jung) tied to a grand piano, her captor poised to chop off her fingers unless Ryu amuses him by strangling a kidnapped child. You can't accuse Park of sensitivity or tact here. But cliches aside, "Cut's" insane situation, played for both laughs and horror, almost makes your hair stand on endjust as "Dumplings" nauseates and "Box" lulls.
A Lions' Gate Films release; opens Friday. In Chinese, Korean and Japanese, with English subtitles. Running time: 2:05.
'Dumplings' (1 ½ stars): Directed by Fruit Chan; written by Lilian Lee; photographed by Christopher Doyle; edited by Chan.
'Cut' (3 stars): Written and directed by Park Chan-Wook; photographed by Chung Chung-Hoon; edited by Kim Sang-Bum and Kim Jae-Bum.
'Box' (2 ½ stars): Directed by Takashi Miike; written by Haruko Fukushima (from a story by Bun Saikou); photographed by Koichi Kawakami; edited by Yasushi Shimamura.
MPAA rating: R (for strong disturbing violent content, some involving abortion and torture, and for sexuality and language).