Friday, January 31, 2020


With the release of Strange Tales of Songling, I want to spend the next month discussing some of the movies that were sources of inspiration for it. I already wrote about Heaven and Hell, and today I am going to talk about Fruit Chan's Dumplings, starring Bai Ling, Miriam Yeung, and Tony Leung Ka-fai. It was released in 2004 both as a short film and full length feature (more on this below). The following contains minor spoilers of plot details that appear very early on, but does not discuss any of the surprises or developments that occur deeper into the film. 

Miriam Yeung plays Mrs. Li, an aging actress who is desperate to restore her lost youth and regain the affection of her husband (Tony Leung Ka-fai). She finds a remedy in dumplings prepared by Aunt Mei (Bai Ling). But her rejuvenation comes with a price.  

Dumplings is very upfront about its premise. Rather than tease the audience or play games like "what's in the dumpling" it lets the viewer know Aunt Mei's recipe right away: human fetuses. The point of the horror isn't any kind of suspense about what Aunt Mei is up to. It is also very frank in its approach. From the start, we see Aunt Mei mincing fetus meat. And it is prepared in a mundane way like any other ingredient. This adds to the believability and unease when Mrs. Li takes her first bite, so the audience can feel the crunch of every bite. Overall the movie is very effective at getting you to feel what the characters feel. 
Aunt Mei (Bai Ling) makes dumplings

The movie is almost more of a character drama at times than horror, which works in its favor (this is particularly true of the full length version). It is still a horror movie. But like Kuei Chih-Hung's Killer Snakes (which I hope to discuss in another post this month), it spends a lot of effort on its characters. Which helps, because much of the horror is a blend of body horror and gore (though the gore is more subdued than you might imagine). 

There are two versions of Dumplings: the extended theatrical release, and the short 40 minute film that was released as part of Three...Extremes. However both use mostly the same footage, with the former adding scenes and having a different ending. 

In some ways, the short film is superior in my opinion. It is tighter, not wasting an ounce of fat, so it never drags or meanders. It also feels more firmly a horror movie. The extended version takes a lot more time and clarifies key details. I think in most cases, the details are implied enough or not essential enough to the story that the shorter version works fine without them. But the changes do make for very different movies. 

In other ways, the extended version is better. It has more time to explore its characters and themes. A big part of what makes Dumplings work is Aunt Mei. And in the theatrical release we get to see a lot more of her. She spends screen time with Mr. Li, for example, and there is a whole subplot around that. It illuminates her personality and her past a lot more, and shows sides of her we don't see in the short film. This produces a character that is the same but different in many ways. There is perhaps less mystery to Aunt Mei in the longer version, but the loss of mystery is replaced with depth. But in both cases Bai Ling's performance is exceptional. 
Mrs. Li (Miriam Yeung) 

Some aspects of the longer version, make it feel less like a horror movie and more like a character study. This is just as enjoyable to watch though in my view. It is just a matter of the film feeling less tight overall, so I think the longer version has a greater chance of losing some viewers than the shorter one. But it might also have wider appeal because it extends the premise further beyond the genre. The longer version has some scenes that don't feel quite as necessary, but it also does submerge you more in the world of the characters. And many of the changes, for instance a key plot point involving a medical procedure, result in surprises in one version, but foreboding in the other. 

Even though some of the length takes away from the horror, parts of the longer theatrical version add to it. For instance both movies do a great job lingering on details to impose discomfort on the viewer (in a way that movies like this should). But the full length film adds a lot to this. Whether it is watching Aunt Mei prepare human flesh or perform a painful and dangerous medical procedure, the camera makes you watch. When you want the camera to move or flinch, it does not. 

The biggest difference of course is the ending. Personally I think the ending in the short film is better. It is a more frightening and poetic conclusion. There is also a stronger hint, even if it is subtle, of the supernatural in the short version's last scene. Both endings are shocking in their own ways. 

A scene with Mr. Li (Tony Leung Ka-fai)
 in the theatrical version
That there are two versions is one of my aspects of Dumplings. It is interesting to see what a difference running time and editing can make. I think one of the conversations that follows watching them is about the editing process and what it either adds or takes away from a story. People are bound to favor one or the other, so I do recommend watching both of them if you can. 

If you like horror, if you like gore, but you also enjoy great character performance, and perhaps some grind house elements, you should see Dumplings. The horror is more subtle than overwhelming, even as the gruesome details are dangled in the forefront. And there is a lot more going on than just horror. This won't be everyone's cup of tea of course. It will make some viewers uneasy, perhaps even angry (there is at least one very upset review about this movie, though I personally think it completely misses the point). But movies the evoke a strong response are worth watching. It is also a gorgeous film. The cinematography is wonderful, which is one of the key things that makes it so effective. Definitely check it out if you have never seen it. 

No comments:

Post a Comment