“What she does in assembling her ingredients is profoundly disturbing. In some cases it may not technically be illegal, on other occasions it is. Depends on the circumstances. I will not describe her secrets, but I will tell you that you may be profoundly disturbed, and that the movie’s last scene, sick and evil as it is, doesn’t flinch when it comes to confronting the story’s ultimate implications.”
‘Dumplings’, directed by Fruit Chan in 2004, is a horror movie set in Hong Kong. It features an affluent woman who tries to rekindle her relationship with her husband by seeking out extreme ways of staying young. She discovers a local woman who is renowned for producing dumplings that have rejuvenating qualities, but quickly discovers the dumplings are composed of something rather unusual. Despite this she carries on with the treatment, and her drive culminates in bloodshed. It’s difficult to watch, particularly, as I discovered, during dinner, it’s darkly comic and satirical and engages, rather bluntly, in debates concerning abortion. Oddly, I watched ‘Sunset Boulevard’ a couple of days later, and I found odd connections, not least the increasingly bizarre and desperate desire for actresses to stay young. The performances are creepy and erotic simultaneously (never an easy combination), Bai Ling as the witchy chef is particularly sinister, but what really stands out is the unflinching focus on the visceral ingredients for the dumplings themselves. Just as the characters are somehow creepy and erotic, Chan manages to depict the ‘unusual’ ingredient as grotesque but also in a romantic, almost appetising way. This is the real horror of stories of cannibalism (see for example the series of Hannibal Lecter books and movies): it’s not just the idea of someone eating another person but the idea of being forced or tricked into becoming a cannibal yourself. Through the fetishistic way Chan frames the food, and through the devastatingly gloppy sound effects, he manages to turn his characters, and horribly the audience itself, into consumers of human flesh.
Would I recommend it? Tricky – it’s a challenging film, but if your stomach is strong enough then watch it with ‘Sunset Boulevard’ just for the fun of it.