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  Dumplings Hard To Swallow
Year: 2004
Director: Fruit Chan
Stars: Miriam Yeung, Bai Ling, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Meme Tian, Miki Yeung, Pauline Lau, So-Fun Wong
Genre: HorrorBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Mrs Li (Miriam Yeung) used to be a popular actress, but since she married her rich, older husband (Tony Leung Ka Fai) her career has fallen by the wayside and she's worried her looks will go the same way. It is with this in mind that she visits the home of cook Aunt Mei (Bai Ling) who it is rumoured has just the thing for banishing those encroaching wrinkles. Unfortunately, this solution is also highly illegal, and Mrs Li must not speak of it with anyone, so as she settles down at Aunt Mei's table she is full of trepidation. The cook gives a cheerful running commentary of exactly what she's up to as she prepares her special dumplings, but when the time comes for Mrs Li to eat them, she is so full of disgust that she drops her first potential bite on the floor. Aunt Mei isn't offended, and encourages her to give it another go, and soon she is tucking in with gusto.

What's the special ingredient? If you knew that, you'd know why Mrs Li was so reluctant to swallow, and although Dumplings, or Gaau Ji as it was originally known, is not a particularly gory horror film, its central idea is pretty rank and all those scenes of characters loudly munching and crunching on the foodstuff of the title could easily turn the stomach. This is the feature length version of the shorter work that appeared in the Three Extremes collection, and presumably director Fruit Chan was so pleased with the way that went that he couldn't resist fashioning a longer cut. In its own, dreamlike but actually nightmarish way, this is still effective.

Thanks in no small part to Christopher Doyle's cinematography, the atmosphere is sustained to a not quite real level; it's not exactly surreal, but you're placed at sufficient distance from the horrible implications of the story to not feel sick from beginning to end. The script was by Lilian Lee and is preoccupied with women growing older, yet really needed an actress with more years under her belt than Yeung, whose porcelain skin glows throughout and makes baffling the idea that she thinks she's growing old and flabby. It's really her husband who has driven Mrs Li to such methods, as he is quite happy to sleep around with younger women while she turns a blind eye to his infidelities.

However, the female character's vanity is what really ends up taking the blame, as we see when one of the, erm, donors of the special ingredient, a particular schoolgirl victim, pays a terrible price for being exploited both by her father and Aunt Mei. And it can all be traced back to a society that places such a high regard for youth, or at least a youthful appearance, and Aunt Mei is living proof that her sickly wonders in the kitchen have a beneficial effect because she quite happily uses her recipe herself. However, once Mrs Li uses the extra special dumpling made from what the schoolgirl offered, she finds it taking its toll, and she breaks out in rashes and smells of fish, despite Aunt Mei's assurances. We never find out why this happens, but it strengthens Mrs Li's resolve to get as much of the special stuff as she can, even when, inevitably, she is denied it. And so she becomes a monster. Other than the indictment of female narcissism and its cultural implications, evoking the "yuck" factor seems to be the main point. Music by Kwong Wing Chan.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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