Following the style and format of the old television series Night Gallery, Three…Extremes showcases a trilogy of short films by master directors of Asian cinema. In the order they appear in the U.S. release, these include Hong Kong director Fruit Chan’s macabre meditation on the fountain-of-youth-themed "Dumplings," South Korean Chan-Wook Park’s self-consciously cinematic psychodrama "Cut," and Japan cult director Miike Takashi’s much-praised trauma drama "Box."
The film’s billing as hybrid horror genre is somewhat misleading. All three narratives do have much in common with the long string of American trashy slasher films, going back to Hershell Gordon Lewis’s 1963 cult classic Blood Feast. But more notably, they partake of a specifically Asian cinematic taste for sadomasochistic family romances. The acknowledged masterpiece of this tradition is Nagisa Oshima’s 1976 world-wide hit In the Realm of the Senses, which re-enacts a famous "weird news" case from 1930s Japan, in which the sexual obsession between a man and a woman causes them to forsake everything, including life itself. The genius of Oshima’s film’s narrative lay in how it pursued the theme of sexual obsession until Oshima had emptied it of any sexual dimension whatsoever.
The shorts of Three Extremes, however, celebrate their sexual perversion, blending the sexual metaphors of carnality, gustation and desire as vehicles of power. In each tale, an underlying, unresolved sexual obsession opens the door to baser cravings for control over other people. In "Dumplings" (referring to what is more popularly known as "potstickers" in the U.S.), for example, Mrs. Qing Li (Miriam Yeung), a not quite so young wife, sets out to regain the sexual attention of Sije Li (Tony Ka-Fai Leung), her husband, by visiting a former gynecologist (presented as a modern-day witch) known as Aunt Mei (Bai Ling) in her prison-like working-class high-rise cage of an apartment. Mrs. Li quickly embraces the diet of potstickers, steamed, boiled, or pan-fried, slurping the crunchy critters with ever increasing pleasure. As she and the audience come to know, viscerally, the source of the little meat hearts of the dumplings, Chan intensifies his montage of human body fluids and body parts, gleefully offering cannibalism, acts of abortion, and blood-disgorging sexual congress for the audience’s delectation.
In "Cut" (the title plays on both the notion of cutting with knives and a director’s command to "cut" a scene and ergo an actor’s ego), fictitious film director Ryu Ji-Ho (Lee Byung-Hun) comes home to find his wife bound to the family grand piano, her fingers simultaneously glued to the keys and attached to wires which spiral into the walls and ceiling. A disgruntled extra (played by Lim Won-Hee) has set a series of traps for Ryu, forcing the director to atone for being both rich and a morally good person at the same time (something which enrages the poor, no longer humble extra, frustrating his world view that the rich are morally bankrupt).
The absurdist challenges given Ryu (to strangle a child, to witness his wife’s fingers being chopped off one at a time, to morally debase himself in front of the actor) are mirrored in the self-conscious way in which director Park plays with the artificiality of film. Ryu leaves a sound stage after a day’s filming and returns to his home, which is the sound stage he had just left. The actor portraying a man bitten by a female vampire and left frozen on-stage turns up still frozen in Ryu’s home. The little girl Ryu is commanded to strangle turns out to be someone else, and even Ryu’s wife is cast in several different lights, depending on how a particular scene is being acted out at any given moment.
Three Extremes is definitely an acquired taste of an art-house subgenre type. The dim sum-like array of choices, glimpses into contemporary Asian cinematic styles and prominent directors and actors, is noteworthy. The tension, of balancing visceral horror with psychological sadomasochism, requires a disciplined viewer. Whether this film achieves its pay-off depends upon the palate of the moviegoer, for this is a rare delicacy indeed.