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I have this fascination about food cultures. What makes different cultures create different foods and how in return do those foods mirror the cultural aspects of a culture? Why is it that some cultures are wonderful at creating incredible delights, and others can't even do a boiled egg right? Of the six great cuisines of the world (Chinese, French, Indian, Italian, Japanese, and Thai), the Chinese cuisine, and its culture have always fascinated me: most of it is imbued with great precision, variety, mysticism and religion. The last two can lead to interesting, and sometimes troubling outcomes. In particular, the notion of delicacy (shared with the French cuisine) has always intrigued me: you eat something because it is rare or because it represents something special, not necessarily because of its wholesome taste or nutrition value. In fact, a common trait for most delicacies across the world is that in themselves, those ingredients do not have much taste, are appreciated more for their texture, and are enhanced by special preparations and sauces. So what pushes people to appreciate pig ears or snout, both French specialties? Why would someone eat a reindeer penis soup or a bear bladder, both Chinese specialties. Being French, and having had i believe a strong exposure to Chinese culture and food, i have always felt that the two cuisines were very similar in many respects. In particular, for both French and Chinese, pretty much everything is edible, and nothing goes to waste. In both cultures, you can find recipes involving every part of every animal, even some that other cultures would find repulsive. I grew up eating blood sausages (the famous French Boudin Noir), pig ears or tails, cow tongues and snouts, tripes and kidney. Likewise, i enjoy very much Chinese delicacies such as duck tongues and feet, all sorts of tripe preparations, chicken heads and so on.
This is all fine, but what i find even more troubling sometimes is that how eating those delicacies is pretty much a more "civilized" version of cannibalism philosophically speaking. Cannibalism in itself may be a disturbing practice, but societies that have practiced it (or still do) do so with a strong religious point of view and the belief that eating something means absorbing that something's spirit and qualities. In a way, a cannibal eating someone else is actually a twisted sign of envy about that someone else's qualities. In this light, believing that eating bull testicles or reindeer penises has in any way some aphrodisiac properties displays pretty much the same philosophical approach to food. In essence, these are the ultimate illustrations of the old proverb: you are what you eat. Sexual prowess is of course one main driver for those beliefs, but health and youth is also another. In particular, the eating of the young is something that many cultures do, from lambs to chicks. Although in the west, people often do not think twice about it, in Asian cultures and the Chinese culture in particular, the intent is very clear: there is a stronger energy in the young that can have deep positive health consequences. For example, did you know that in the better Chinese restaurants you can order cooked unhatched eggs? That's right, a fertilized egg with a chick still in it, just days before it would have hatched, either boiled or grilled. It's known as a Balut. Disgusting do you say? Why? You have eaten a chicken omelet in your life i am sure. I'd agree though that presentation makes all the difference and i was never able to try it myself. But except for that, conceptually, it's the same thing.
Based on this philosophical approach to food and cannibalism, Fruit Chan combines them with another deeply taboo subject in Modern China: abortion. Dumplings may be the most shocking and taboo film coming out of China (Hong-Kong) yet. When i watched it, i simply could not believe that mainstream stars would take part of it and that the authorities allowed it at all. With a very high production value, and meticulous execution, this is not a movie that was done in the shadow of authorities.
In current day Hong Kong, an aging actress (Miriam Yeung) is longing for the days when she was young and popular. She is bitter about getting old and losing her radiant youth and beauty. One day, she hears about this lady (Ling Bai) who can prepare miracle Dumplings that will in a matter of days, give you back your youth, with its beauty and energy. Herself in her late 60's, she is proof that her "product" works as she looks like a radiant and energetic 30 year-old. The aging actress is dubious at first, but decides to try it as she is quite desperate. After a few days only, the dumplings are starting to have their effect and the woman returns for more. What's the secret? It's terrifying. The lady's special recipe involves aborted human fetuses that she gets from mainland China on a regular basis. Like a seed, fetuses contain the entire energy that a person will eventually spend a lifetime to dissipate. Capturing that energy, and then consuming it, causes you to get younger and reverse the process of aging. Even though this becomes quite clear in the film early on, we don't really know for sure until about half way through. The story becomes particularly horrifying when the lady goes on to explain the history of the practice from ancient China, and how fetuses in their second trimester are the best. The aging actress immediately asks her to find that most potent kind to accelerate her rejuvenation. What follows is the illegal abortion of a young girl who has been raped by her father, and deep tragedies ensue.
With strong themes such as those, combined with Man's, and Woman's, never-ending quest for eternal youth, you are given an impressive treatise in humanity. Fruit Chan pulled in a masterpiece about our society's ever-growing cult of youth, and twisted it into a nightmarish package. The direction is meticulous in pulling you deeper and deeper into the story, little by little. Things are half-said up until 30mn or so in the movie but if you have any common sense, you quickly guess what's going on, and feel even more terrified by the casualty in which the protagonists talk about things. Fruit Chan managed to make this nightmare very realistic to the point where i felt pretty sure that such things do take place around the world.
What makes this movie so good, if you can stomach its content, is not only the explosive content, but also, how the movie was done. It's so beautiful with amazing cinematography from demi-God of the trade Christopher Doyle. The art direction is impressive, with great costumes, wonderfully colored sets and shots full of so many details. This is a film that merits several viewings just to get past the shocks in order to appreciate its beauty.
Performance-wise, the two ladies of the film have created amazing characters. The lady is gorgeous, and yet, so cruel, or so indifferent to what she does. It all seems so natural, so obvious, and so guilt-free. Ling Bai is wonderful in that role. As for Miriam Yeung she also pulled all stops to portray the aging actress. She is full of bitterness and resentment, and although reluctantly goes to see the lady, eventually, the promise of eternal youth is so great that she can put all her morals on the side. Those two performances are all the more amazing that until then, both actresses had been doing mostly minor roles, or roles without great range and impact.
There are two versions of this film. The long version is an absolute must. A short edit of the film is also available as part of the second volume of the Three series. If you like Asian horror films, the two Three volumes are a must as they feature ground breaking horror shorts from great directors all across Asia. You can find reviews for the three segments of the first Three here, here and here.
> > > Back to part 1, the review of One Night In Mongkok (2004) > > >
- Laurent Hasson