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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Asian film omnibus goes to so-so extremes

Utsukushii Yoru Zankoku na Asa

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Takashi Miike, Fruit Chan, Park Chang Wook
Running time: 118 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

The English title of this film, Three . . . Extremes," is one that promises more than it can possibly deliver, especially as one of this omnibus film's three directors is Takashi Miike. After all, what affronts to good taste or simple sanity has Miike not committed in more than 50 films?

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Lee Byung Hung and Kang Hye Jeong in "Cut"

For the uninitiated, it's enough to say this bad boy of Japanese cinema has found ways to slice body parts and spray bodily fluids that would have taxed the imagination -- and stomach -- of the Marquis de Sade. All good fun, mind you.

By comparison, this collaboration with Hong Kong director Fruit Chan ("Durian Durian") and South Korea's Park Chang Wook ("Old Boy") -- a follow-up to the similarly structured 2002 film "Three" -- is a model of restraint, though its shocks have enough voltage to stop more than one handful of popcorn midway to mouth. Unlike many of Miike's other entertainments, though, it shouldn't drive anyone from the theater in retching disgust -- save perhaps those unwise souls who dine on Chinese dumplings before the show.

Miike's segment, "Box," is uncharacteristically subdued, if insidiously creepy in a Taisho Era (1912-26), Edogawa Rampo sort of way. His heroine is Kyoko (Kyoko Hasegawa), a sultry writer who works in a gloomy den filled with memories and haunted by a young female ghost. When her editor (Atsuro Watabe) visits, she emerges from her shell to attempt something resembling a seduction, only to plunge back into her past.

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Miriam Yeung in "Dumplings"

As a girl, she and her twin sister were part of a bizarre magic act, involving two identical boxes. The magician (Watabe, in a dual role) was a sinister father figure who, with capricious cruelty, preferred the sister to Kyoko, driving the jealous girl to a childish act of revenge, with horrific consequences. Then, one day, Kyoko receives a formal invitation to revisit the scene of her crime and she accepts, trudging off in the dead of winter to meet her fate.

Rather than subvert this story with odd, rude shocks -- as is typically his wont -- Miike somberly lays on the old-timey, otherworldly atmospherics in a mannered style that resembles little else in his oeuvre (though the first act of "Audition" comes close). The producers, I thought, might have done better to hire that past master of Taisho Era strangeness -- Teruo Ishii.

"Dumplings" is the title -- and subject -- of Chan's segment, a shortened version of a 90-minute theatrical version already staged in Hong Kong (and unseen by me). Like the other segments, it is less a crass exploitation than an arty excursion into the macabre. It differs from the others, however, in being comic as well as horrific -- and in addressing a real-life problem in a real-life setting. Its solution, though (we fervently hope), is anything but realistic.

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Atsuro Watanabe and Kyoko Hasegawa in "Box"

Canto-pop star Miriam Yeung plays Mrs. Lee, a former TV celebrity who has married a successful businessman (a silver-haired Tony Leung) and retired. But hubby has turned to philandering, and Mrs. Lee is frantically searching for a way to restore her fading beauty and win him back. To all but the most critical eye, there is hardly much to be alarmed about -- a bit of sagging here, a bit of tightening there -- but she seeks nothing less than that dewy glow. She finds it, improbably, in Mei (Bai Ling), a rough-mannered working-class woman who make dumplings that she claims are the fountain of youth and she offers her own youthful looks as proof. (She is unforthcoming about her real age, though she breaks nostalgically into songs of the long-gone Maoist era.)

Mrs. Lee soon discovers that the miracle dumplings are made of ingredients banned by not only the health authorities, but every moral code known to civilized humankind. She continues to crunch grimly away, however, as Christopher Doyle's camera photographs her bubbling meals with an ironic beauty, as though shooting a cooking show from hell. Meanwhile, Mei remains chipperly oblivious as she prepares yet another batch -- and a new ingredient wails and weeps.

This story may sound blatantly misogynist, but Chan and Doyle are hardly sadistic in their treatment of their two heroines, bathing both in the same caressing, flattering light, while placing the action at several removes from gross and sordid reality.

The last segment, Park's "Cut," starts as the most extreme and thus Miike-esque. The shocks are so elaborately and sadistically over the top that they verge on the comic. No one dreams up anything remotely like them in real life, unless they are Japanese manga artists or variety show producers.

The hero is a commercially and critically successful film director (Lee Byung Hun) who lives an idyllic life with his beautiful pianist wife (Kang Hye Jeong) in a pad straight out of a painfully chic design magazine. Into this perfect setup steps a psychotic extra (Lim Won Hie) from the director's films, who considers himself a neglected talent and is furious that the filmmaker has never recognized his existence.

Invading the director's home with a child hostage, the extra acts out a fiendishly ingenious script, using rope, Superglue and a bungee chord as props. Finally he presents the director with a horrific choice that, one way or another, will change his life forever.

Park's working out of this familiar "madman in the house" situation is clever enough, but my attention began to flag as I realized that the plot springs were purely mechanical -- and that the only real surprise would be in how the extra met his inevitable end.

The Miike of old, I thought, would have finished with, say, a duel in outer space, with both antagonists transformed into giant penises (see the "Dead or Alive" series for examples). By that standard, Park is boringly sane. But who wouldn't be? Even, today, Miike himself.

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