There's an old filmmaking adage that claims what you don't see is somehow scarier than what you do. It has become something of a mantra for psychological horror - a genre which champions weird suggestive noises, strangely behaving people, and internal demons. As you'll no doubt be aware I am a huge fan of psychological horror - I wouldn't go as far to say that we should rename Saturdays to 'Horray for Silent Hill 2 Day' but I certainly wouldn't mind. But even I think being chased by a well-endowed Minotaur is infinitely more terrifying, on a primal level, than hearing a noise that vaguely sounds like a moose laughing along to a Monty Python box set. The psychological affects the viewer on a more subconscious basis and makes the skin crawl with its suggestive imagery and enmeshing duplicity. However, Hong Kong extreme horror film, Dumplings (2004), feels as though it is trying to combine the psychological with the visceral. It's the cinematic equivalent of eating haggis.
Dumplings has the same "look at me, I'm so edgy" vibe about it that seems to permeate Tumblr like the bad smell in the boot of a serial killer's car. Based on a segment from short film anthology Three...Extremes, Dumplings is about an ageing woman who tries to retain her looks by eating dumplings made from foetuses. Oh yes, it's that kind of film. But while most movies dealing such an extreme subject would simply be content to relish in the squick, like a ten-year-old boy discovering armpit farts, Dumplings is actually a disturbing exploration of metaphorically and literally consuming humans for the benefit of one's self. Or if that's too pretentious a way of putting it for you, it's like performing emergency cunnilingus to escape an otherwise awkward social situation.
The great thing about Dumplings' narrative design is that the revelation of what chef/witch doctor/former gynaecologist (because of course she is) Aunt Mei's (Bai Ling) secret dumpling ingredients are, isn't actually a revelation at all. In a rather stark opening sequence, the viewer is treated to Mei's rather macabre dumpling making process. It's not explicitly clear what these strange slimy objects are (not at first), there are no detailed close-ups, but the sinister implication is planted in the audience's minds. Anyone who hasn't figured out the actual nature of these ingredients soon learns the ugly truth from the discourse between Mrs. Li (Miriam Yeung) and Aunt Mei. Director Fruit Chan (yes that is his name) doesn't go for the grand reveal; there's no Charlton Heston type running around screaming "the dumplings are made from penis seeds". The cannibalism of foetuses is something the viewer is forced to accept, and revealing it so early on serves to accomplish two equally important tasks.
Firstly, by starting at a place as dark as foetus eating the viewer is better informed at deciding whether they want to stay for the rest of the ride or not. So if you're a pro-lifer, then I'd suggest switching out Dumplings for a documentary about Planned Parenthood getting destroyed by the Independence Day aliens. The other thing is that by establishing the horrific hook in the beginning, Chan is then able to spend the rest of the film recounting the subsequent impact this uncivilised practice wrecks on the characters' lives.
Fruit Chan's directing style has been described as reflecting the everyday life of the Hong Kong populace, which certainly shows in Dumplings. The film is steeped in a real world horror - the idea of ageing and finding the world shutting itself away. Ching Li's insecurities about her supposedly fading beauty don't make much sense considering her then thirty-something actress possesses more sex appeal than a VHS copy of the film Babe in David Cameron's home. This commentary on society's obsession with youthfulness (a sickeningly played out trend, by the way) and beauty, is part of Chan's wider ideology. His views on the ills of society are almost Dickensian - playing sympathetic ear to the downtrodden and outcast, the young desperate pregnant girl at the beginning being the most prominent example. Ching herself is forced into this diabolic situation by her desperation for her womanising husband (Tony Leung Ka-fai) to desire her again. Not that being an eater of life particularly helped Galactus attract the opposite sex.
Dumplings isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea. Aside from the disturbingly nauseous plot, there isn't much in the way of conventional horror. The character of Aunt Mei feels like the ruinous evil witch archetype from a dark fairy tale, her motivations (beyond financial gain) are unclear, and her dumplings have a bewitching effect on those who eat them. Mei being an old woman with a young woman's body, adds to this sense of spiritual unease the viewer feels about her. There's a little bit of body horror involved, as Ching starts to become physically dependent on the effect of the dumplings, which in turn have odd effects on her body - such as leaving her malodorous with the taint of rotten fish. But the corrupting influence of the dumplings also informs the simmering undercurrent of pulsating sexuality - those who eat them become overtaken by a primal lust, leading to uncomfortably aggressive sexual encounters.
Regardless, this is all window dressing. I imagine most people are largely interested in the gag-inducing cannibalism. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle does an excellent job. The food preparation scenes are all the more disturbing for their meticulous beauty and vibrantly appealing colour palette. As Ching sits down to chomp down on the mesmerizing eye-catching translucent dumpling with the sinister pink glob in the middle, the excellent sound design really draws you in and makes you one with this terrible act. It's a disgusting experience and immediately puts the viewer on edge - not unlike being at a house party and going to take a bite out of some leftover pizza, only to find it had been used for a game of soggy pizza.