Tag Archives: Cannibalism

CAPSULE: DUMPLINGS (2004)

餃子]/Jiao Zi

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DIRECTED BY: Fruit Chan

FEATURING: Miriam Yeung, Bai Ling, Tony Ka-Fai Leung, Meme

PLOT: An aging woman, eager to recapture her lost youth and the attentions of her wayward husband, patronizes a local maker of dumplings whose creations reverse the ravages of time; however, what she learns about how the dumplings are made force her to confront her own desires and tolerances.

Still from Dumplings (2004)

COMMENTS: The big twist is fully revealed exactly halfway through Dumplings, but in truth, we’ve known what was going on all along. Aunt Mei makes dumplings that restore youth thanks to a special ingredient. Mei’s current client, the former TV actress Mrs. Li, is eager for a therapy that will bring about the return of her youthful beauty quickly, to which Mei replies that the best ingredients are hard to come by. We learn that Aunt Mei used to be a doctor, and on her occasional visits to a local hospital to get illicit supplies, she discusses the ramifications of China’s one-child policy and the procedure some have used to bypass it. Meanwhile, a neighbor has brought her pregnant daughter to Aunt Mei for “help.” You’re with me here, right? There’s not really any mystery about what’s in the dumplings, is there?

Director Fruit Chan is a great deal more artful than that, of course. The camera lavishly chronicles the cooking process with loving attention, in the manner of Babette’s Feast or Big Night, so that you might be lulled into thinking you were watching Hong Kong’s answer to Chocolat. All the while, he is careful to avoid featuring anything too gory until the key moment, even if there are suggestions of something untoward throughout. (A special shout-out is owed to sound designer Kinson Tsang, who helps bring the horror by delivering the alluring, disgusting power of every slurp, chop, and bloody plop.) But there’s no getting past the litany of taboos that Dumplings confronts. Pretty it up all you like, but eventually, you’re going to have to face the facts about what’s in your food.

The film is an expansion of Chan’s segment from the horror anthology Three… Extremes, but at 90 minutes it remains taut and effective. The film is buoyed by the pair of stellar performances at its core. Bai Ling cavorts around her kitchen like a mischievous wood nymph, singing and spinning around confidently like a water strider; an Act 3 monologue extolling the virtues of anthropophagy frames her actions as virtually righteous. Meanwhile, Miriam Yeung is the very model of prim propriety pushed to its limits. No Death Becomes Her transformations here; you never once believe she is old or has lost any of her beauty (Yeung is stunning throughout), but you can be certain of her own perception of her failings, and they underline her commitment to the course of action that leads to her ultimate fate.

Dumplings is weird by virtue of its off-limits subject matter, but curiously not weird thanks to its earnest and forthright exploration of said material. A couple key subplots, such as the fate of Mei’s unlucky neighbor or a confrontation between the chef and Mrs. Li’s philandering husband, hint at a greater reckoning that never really arrives. Instead, Dumplings is a sober meditation on what we’re willing to do to get what we think is justly owed to us. No fortune cookie here, but instead this admonition: It’s not what we eat but what we choose to eat that makes us who we are.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Jiao Zi is a never ending cycle of absurdity leading to comedy leading to absurd reactions leading to more horror… the surreal way in which the horror and comedy of Jiao Zi was implemented ending up being too alluring for me to ignore.” – Bill Thompson, Bill’s Movie Emporium

(This movie was nominated for review by Ed. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE DOUBLE FEATURE: HOTEL (2001) & HOTEL (2004)

There’s something inherently weird about hotels. After all, they are a temporary domicile, a place you call home for a limited time, and you share the experience with dozens of other people you will never know. (I’ve stayed on more than one occasion at a chain dubbing itself “Home 2,” like it’s the sequel to the much-loved original.) It might explain why we see so many films about them on this site, from hotels that house transient mental patients to hotels stored in the private parts of ancient vampires to hotels where couples meet again and again to decrepit hotels to hotels on the edge of the apocalypse and beyond. So maybe it shouldn’t be too surprising to find two different films in our suggestion box that are content to leave the title at Hotel. Arguably, that alone should tell you it’s about to get strange up in here.

Notably, this pair of films offers us differing points of view: one largely concerning the guests, the other centered on a member of the staff.

HOTEL (2001)

DIRECTED BY: Mike Figgis

FEATURING: Saffron Burrows, , , , , , Burt Reynolds, , David Schwimmer, Mark Strong

Still from Hotel (2001)

PLOT: A film company attempts to shoot a guerilla-style version of “The Duchess of Malfi” while based in a hotel that practices cannibalistic vampirism.

COMMENTS: This hotel variant is a directorial showcase. Figgis indulges all the techniques at his disposal: handheld cameras shooting hyper-saturated video, improvised dialogue, and the same quad-split screen storytelling that he indulged in Timecode. Some have suggested (and a line of dialogue insinuates) that he’s actually playing with Dogme 95 techniques, although his production violates most of Dogme’s rules. What he really seems to be doing is utilizing the same let’s-film-and-see-what-happens philosophy that he’s depicting. So it’s improvised. Real. Which is potentially interesting, especially when his actors are up to the challenge. But it can be equally deadening if they’re not. Sometimes there’s a payoff, like Burt Reynolds’ inexplicable turn as the director of a flamenco troupe, yes-anding his way through a scenario that would not seem to call for him at all. But you’re as likely to get a scene like Salma Hayek and Lucy Liu screaming at each other. Is that really the most interesting thing they could think of to do? It’s weak improv, which makes it weak cinema.

The all-star cast is a huge part of the appeal. It ends up playing like one of those live theatrical experiences where you get a different experience based upon which actors you choose to follow. The real-world examples of this can result in something classy or trashy, and much the same is true here. Consider Rhys Ifans’ gleefully confident turn as a power-mad director, a performance which borders on parody but is the liveliest thing in the film, until he is curiously sidelined before the halfway mark. His counterpoint is David Schwimmer’s Continue reading CAPSULE DOUBLE FEATURE: HOTEL (2001) & HOTEL (2004)

CAPSULE: RAW (2016)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Julia Ducournau

FEATURING: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella

PLOT: A vegetarian girl develops an insatiable craving for meat after she eats a rabbit kidney as part of a veterinary school hazing ritual.

Still from Raw (2016)

COMMENTS: As Justine, a veterinary whiz-kid, Garance Marillier seems to grow up before our eyes. She begins the film as a timid girl looking younger than her eighteen years, submissive to her parent’s cult-like adherence to a stern vegetarian creed (Mom raises holy hell when she finds a cafeteria worker has accidentally ladled a chunk of sausage into her daughters’ mashed potatoes). Later in the movie, after Justine has tasted organ meat and experienced college life, we see her gyrating drunkenly in front of a mirror in too much lipstick and a slutty dress, listening to a distaff rap about a gal who likes to “bang the dead.” A lot of people indulge in pleasures of the flesh when they go away to college, but Raw gets ridiculous.

Raw is rich with coming-of-age subtexts—sibling conflicts, youthful irresponsibility, conformity, social and intellectual insecurity, bullying, bodily changes, bulimia—all of them given an unnerving horror spin. Naturally, sex is the dominant subtext. Under peer pressure, Justine betrays her abstinence and, now conflicted, finds herself drawn towards her new carnal/carnivore nature, and the appetites and danger that comes with it.

The veterinary school setting allows Ducournau to include a lot of animalistic symbolism, which verges from the poetically frightening (a horse chained to a treadmill) to the disgusting (a cow rectum cleaned by hand). Raw‘s focus is on bodily functions—eating, puking, excreting, arousal—all of it serving to remind Justine that she, too, is an animal. There are even hints of bestiality, and at one point Justine roleplays as a dog.

Raw‘s story is told with more abstraction than is strictly necessary, making it into a somewhat dreamlike impression of the anxieties of experiencing adult freedom for the first time. The hazing rituals at veterinary college are exaggerated to a ridiculous degree: masked upperclassmen burst into freshman dorms like the secret police rounding up dissidents. The inductees are compliant, and a ritual that seems like victims being led to the gas chamber segues seamlessly into a kegger. The faculty allows students to attend class while soaked with blood. People react to severed fingers with less consternation that one might expect. A Lynchian old man playing with his dentures in the emergency room waiting area seems to be the only one in the movie who understand that something odd is going on. But you will notice. Raw is a thoroughly disturbing parable about discovering your own true nature.

After originally being released on a bare-bones DVD only, Shout! Factory gave Raw the deluxe Blu-ray treatment in 2021, complete with a director’s commentary track, interviews and Q&As, deleted scenes, and more.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I’ll spare you the graphic details, which is more than this fearlessly bizarre film does, but ‘Raw’ takes on the politically incorrect subject of devouring females, and lends new meaning to giving someone the finger.”–Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Sam Smith. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PIGSTY (1969)

Porcile

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DIRECTED BY: Pier Paolo Pasolini

FEATURING: , Jean-Pierre Léaud, Alberto Lionello, ,

PLOT: In contemporary Germany, a son of an industrialist discusses abstract social principles with his fiancée as his father plans a merger with an old, pre-war associate; in medieval Europe, a young cannibal forms a gang of bandits before eventually being trapped by the local militia.

Still from Pigsty (porcile) 1969

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Pigsty qualifies not only for efficiency’s sake: as two narratives, it would be like getting two Apocrypha titles for the price of one. But each of the narrative strains is an oddity in its own right: one, an ambiguous morality tale stuffed with art-house flourishes; the other, an obvious morality tale stuffed with macabre social commentary.

COMMENTS: There is only one moment of near-tenderness in Pigsty, during an encounter between a young, unnamed scavenger and a young, unnamed militiaman on a blasted hillside in Medieval Europe. The militiaman has been straggling behind the main procession of armed soldiers, whistling as he idles. The two men awkwardly encounter each other, exchange glances, and for the briefest moment one might believe that something romantic might ensue—but almost immediately they fire their weapons, fight with their swords, and one kills, and eats, the other. Pigsty‘s true tenor is shown, not least when the cannibal throws the decapitated head of the guardsman into an steaming thermal vent on the mountainside that overlooks the lifeless clearing. Sacrifice.

Two parallel narratives intertwine as counterpoints, but each reinforces the other’s message. Modern life, with all its trappings (as emphasized by the fiancée character when she opens the contemporary story with the line, “We’re two, rich bourgeois, Julian”), turns out to be no less violent—and no less focused on survival—than life in the Dark Ages. While Pasolini uses wholly visual storytelling for the historical half, he dissects 1960s society via endless conversations between allegorical stereotypes. Julian, the scion of a major industrial concern, finds himself caught between two worlds: his fiancée’s conformist radicalism, and his father’s conformist classism; he retreats from what he sees as a mindless game of consumerist conquest by frequenting the pigsty on the family’s estate. What of love? His fiancée challenges him early on, “You kissed me!” He responds, “I also scratch myself.”

The focus quickly moves from the young man  to the father. Though wheelchair-bound, he derives plenty of joie de vivre from his business, his harp, and many, many conversations about the nature of class and society—finding the hilarity of it all from the side opposite his son. The patriarch is an ex-Nazi in the prosperous half of a divided Germany; his recollections of his political past consist exclusively of “humorous” anecdotes and memories. To illustrate this point—overtly, to the point of heavy-handedness—Pasolini presents this smirking cripple in a bedtime scene where he wishes he had been able to have his caricature drawn by George Grosz, with a Brechtian tune to back it up.

These characters without principle—or, at best, woefully misguided principles—are a direct contrast to the filmmaker. Pasolini was a complex man, but he was filled with disdain for the establishment (specifically, any of them). His views can be distilled as “anti-authoritarian”. There are countless references to parse: the allure of the pigsty, the undercurrent of homoeroticism in the historical narrative, and the nebulous confession of the scavenger (“I killed my father, I ate human flesh, and I quiver with joy”), with its religious overtones. But Pasolini isn’t a subtle filmmaker; even if any given piece of the story he’s telling is veiled in arcane symbolism, his message is always crystal clear.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an exquisitely revolting satire…”–Time Out