Halloween Horror: Three... Extremes (2004)

Three... Extremes was billed as an Asian exploitation anthology when it came out back in 2005, but its three segments are far more artful than anything you’ll find in a contemporary American horror anthology. That doesn’t mean the films aren’t horrifying though. They are, just not in the monster-flying-at-the-camera way American films are usually scary. These Asian films thrive off dread and an uncomfortable creepiness, insinuating things you’d rather left unexplored about the human psyche, and suggesting associations you’d never thought of until watching them.

Composed of three segments, one each from Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan, Three... Extremes escalates in terms of artfulness as the anthology progresses. The first film, the Hong Kong Extreme “Dumplings” from Fruit Chan, is the grossest and most disturbing of the three. It’s a cannibalism exploitation flick far more nauseating than anything I can recall watching. In fact, it’s so disgusting that many viewers would possibly prefer skipping to the second segment for the sake of their stomachs. “Dumplings” is disgusting not just because of gore, although it does have many moments of excess bodily fluids, but because of our natural revulsion to the acts depicted within it.

The story concerns an aging actress (Miriam Yeung) who can no longer seduce her husband (Tony Leung Ka-fai) and so seeks the miraculous rejuvenative dumplings of a former gynecologist (Bai Ling). Of course, there’s a secret ingredient to the dumplings that give them their regenerative power. The truth of the secret ingredient is learned right away and things only devolve from there into further evil. Christopher Doyle’s cinematography here is no exploitation camerawork. It’s full of soft interior lighting and lingers on the characters’ faces as they chew and contemplate what they’re eating, giving the viewer ample time to let the reality of what we’re seeing sink in. Chan also amps up the sound of the characters eating, the crunch of teeth on teeth and the squishy chewing of the dumplings, which adds considerably to the film’s nauseating effect. “Dumplings” is a splatter film where the gore is small, horrifying dollops of blood.

The second segment, the Korea Extreme “Cut” from Park Chan-wook, is far less nauseating than “Dumplings” but no less grotesque. It concerns a famous film director (Lee Byung-hun) who becomes the hostage of a deranged extra (Im Won-hee) from his films. The extra is bitter that the director is a good person while also being rich and successful, while he is poor and floundering in life, and a terrible person to boot. “Cut” explores similar ground to Park’s Vengeance Trilogy, showing how ordinary people can be made brutal through inflicting acts of brutality upon them.

“Cut” is not groundbreaking stuff, and its ending is a head-scratcher, but it is technically impressive. Park fully utilizes the large sound-stage set, constantly reminding us that what we’re seeing is a movie about a man stuck on a movie set, and that Lee’s director is a stand-in for Park himself. It’s all a little meta, but it shows that Park is fully aware of how his cinematic legacy of onscreen brutality has affected viewers.

The third segment, the Japan Extreme “Box” from Takashi Miike, is the best of the three, a surprisingly poetic film from the prolific gore maestro. “Box” follows a young novelist (Kyoko Hasegawa) trying to uncover the truth about her recurring dream about her being buried alive in a box in the snow, and the dream’s possible connection to her past as a child contortionist in her father’s circus act. “Box” fluidly skirts between dream reality and waking world, blending the two, maintaining the dread of the dreams even when Kyoko is doing no more than laying in bed.

In parts it reminded me of a Krzysztof Kieslowski film, with Hasegawa’s novelist staying in an abandoned apartment building; the soft lighting of the wintry city outside streaming in through the windows and playing across her sad features is reminiscent of the frigid Warsaw of Kieslowski’s Dekalog. The dream parts, however, are far stranger than anything in a Kieslowski film. We see Kyoko as a child in her father’s circus, contorting herself to fit into a small box during his magic act. The circus scenes are the stuff of surreal nightmares, full of animal masks, fire imagery, and audience members who stare silently ahead. As the segments moves towards a conclusion and Kyoko’s past intermingles with her dream reality, the discomforting dread builds to a fever pitch.

Three... Extremes is unlike any other horror anthology I’ve seen. It’s full of carefully considered artistry and horrifying imagery. Park’s segment is the most obvious, Chan’s is the most disturbing, and Miike’s is more arthouse than grindhouse, but together they make a strong impression on the viewer. Three... Extremes may not shock the viewer into paralysis during its running time, but its creeping effect lingers long after the thrills of a jump-scare would have faded.

8 out of 10

Three... Extremes (2004, Hong Kong/Korea/Japan)

“Dumplings” directed by Fruit Chan; written by Lilian Lee; starring Miriam Yeung, Bai Ling, and Tony Leung Ka-fai; “Cut” written and directed by Park Chan-wook; starring Lee Byung-hun, Im Won-hee, and Kang Hye-jung; “Box” directed by Takashi Miike; written by Bun Saikou and Haruko Fukushima; starring Kyoko Hasegawa, Atsuro Watabe, Mai Suzuki, and Yuu Suzuki.