Welcome to Scared in Segments, a monthly column devoted to horror anthologies big and small. If you don’t know what an anthology is, it’s a film that includes a collection of short stories or segments (self-contained or connected). As for anthology television, series can be episodic or seasonal, but the former will take precedence here. Now, in each edition of this column, you’ll get background info as well as insight on the monthly pick. If you’re ready for some short-form horror, pull up a seat as I’ve got a story for you…
The Pan-Asian anthology Three was met with lukewarm reviews following its release in 2002. Yet the sequel is so much of a palate cleanser that it was distributed internationally before its predecessor was. The followup features more distinguished talent behind the camera – the directors being Fruit Chan, Chan-wook Park, and Takashi Miike – and more provocative stories on screen. It is no wonder the movie is called Three… Extremes.
Both films have tales originating from different East Asian countries. So, not only is the movie rich in dread, it is a distinct display of cultural and directorial differences. Although no two stories are ever alike, they have one thing in common: they prove fear is a universal language.
STORY 1 – “DUMPLINGS“
Directed by Fruit Chan
As with other parts of the world, Hong Kong’s cosmetic industry is competitive. Hence Mrs. Li (Miriam Yeung) meeting with a mysterious woman everyone calls Aunt Mei (Bai Ling). The new client’s vanity has led her to the former doctor’s wonder drug for aging: dumplings made from aborted fetuses. At first, Mrs. Li is unaware of the secret ingredient, but the truth does not stop her from taking another bite.
Fruit Chan put himself on the map with this segment. His interpretation of Lilian Lee’s story thematically overstates the inescapable pressure many women feel every day. In the context of horror, “Dumplings” communicates one specific character’s desperation to look young and beautiful. Neither the monetary nor the moral cost is a deterrent for Mrs. Li, a former actress barely into her thirties, looking for the fountain of youth.
Chan’s juxtaposition of class is felt in every fiber of this short. The rich eat the poor, and the poor benefit from the even poorer. Downtrodden women come in all forms here: from Mrs. Li being a victim of society’s impossible standards, to the abused teenager whose misfortune is preyed upon by the two main characters. The use of color is nuanced, too. Chan and cinematographer Christopher Doyle emphasize the idea of wealth with greens and golds while denoting irony with reds, a color associated with luck and happiness. Through and through, “Dumplings” is a delicious treat both contextually and visually.
The segment was eventually turned into a feature-length film with a new ending that is more brutal than the original.
STORY 2 – “Cut“
Directed by Chan-wook Park
After production shuts down for the night on one of his films, a highly successful movie director (Byung-hun Lee) and his wife (Hye-jung Kang) are captured by a deranged extra (Won-hee Im). The nameless director, restrained by an elastic leash, helplessly watches as his wife is tortured. The stranger begins a deadly game where the director must kill a kidnapped child, or else he’ll chop off the wife’s fingers, one by one.
Park brings his trademark air of sophistication to a depraved and transgressive story. “Cut” taking place in a single room – a movie set modeled after the protagonist’s home – evokes an intimate stage play quality. Seong-hie Ryu’s intricate production design creates both figurative and literal tension. This entire scenario is a terrific exercise in how environment affects mood and energy.
The villain’s unpredictable nature keeps us anxious. One minute he’s performing a costume-test montage and dancing like a fool, the next he’s slicing off someone’s digits without nary a flinch. It’s an indulgent performance that keeps viewers guessing. On the other end of this psychological warfare, the director is forced into a battle of wits he has no chance of winning. He listens to his foe’s laundry list of grievances and gives in to his perverse whims. Audiences will feel as powerless as the main character.
“Cut” is incredibly potent on its own or as the centerpiece in this omnibus. In terms of intensity, it’s indisputably unmatched.
STORY 3 – “Box“
Directed by Miike Takashi
In the last story, Kyōko (Kyōko Hasegawa) is a twenty-five-year-old novelist who is plagued by a recurring nightmare of her past. In her dreams, she revisits her time as a young circus performer; her signature act involved fitting herself inside a box. Kyōko ultimately escaped the circus but not without leaving her twin, Shōko, trapped inside the same box as a fire broke out. To make things more confusing for adult Kyōko, she notices her publisher (Atsurō Watanabe) resembles her childhood benefactor. In hopes of understanding why she’s suddenly experiencing these dreams now, Kyōko accepts an ominous invitation to her old circus.
“Box” feels like a departure from the visceral style Miike’s fans are accustomed to. There is no trace of wanton violence to be found here. Rather, the director fully engages in surrealism and dream psychology. For instance, his command of soaked blues and reds makes more sense once the ending comes along. Miike’s detached approach here, similar to that of One Missed Call, is proof he is capable of introspective storytelling.
Hands down, Three… Extremes outperforms the first movie on every level. The direction is impeccable, the imagery is tantalizing, and the stories are accessible to all audiences. There is obviously more international appeal and motive involved here, but that does not mean the movie is not uniquely Asian. Just the opposite, Chan, Park, and Miike all incorporate their backgrounds without ever foregoing their stylistic inclinations.
While some may question the order of the three parts, the overall quality is impressive. That is something the original film cannot claim. In an age where horror anthologies are regretfully becoming more and more slapdash, Three… Extremes is an example of what other directors should be striving for–aesthetic value, consistency, and, most importantly, sheer terror.