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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.
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.)