"Three . . . Extremes" is like a spring bouquet of three lovely flowers, buttercup, daffodil and hyacinth. All beautiful and bright, all attractive, all sweet to smell and soft to the touch, all . . . poisonous.
It's composed of three short (about 40 minutes each) horror films from Asian countries -- China, South Korea and Japan -- that are distinguished by extraordinary levels of craftsmanship and performance. More important, unlike the American horror product, none are cheap, depending on shock or gore for their effectiveness. Rather, they represent the horror of the imagination, the chill of dread, the gibbety can't-settle-down quality of true disturbance.
The best comes first. Fruit Chan's "Dumplings" is cut down from a 90-minute version, but this truncation may be its ideal form. The Hong Kong film is classically spare, and like the best of fellow masters Hitchcock and Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense") before, its crispness gives it immense powers. More would not only be too much but possibly excessive.
"Dumplings" is a study of the wicked power of vanity, horrifying and hilarious (to the particularly jaded) at once. Miriam Yeung Chin Wah plays a fashionable middle-aged former Hong Kong TV star who, now that she's losing her looks and vitality, may also be losing her husband. She's heard, however, of Auntie Mei (Bai Ling) and her famous dumplings. These nodules of boiled dough folded around ground meat have the power to rejuvenate. Ching, even in Auntie Mei's crummy slum apartment, has to try them . . . and the cure works. Her skin tightens, her spirit soars, her sexual hunger increases -- and she's able to entrance her husband again. Why, it must be some ancient herbal medicine or something. Or is it? Why does Auntie Mei (Ling, a fabulous beauty by the way, is great, finding a gamboling, almost Falstaffian body posture to express her character's crude rural nature) go to the mainland every once in a while?
Do you want to know more? Even if I could tell you, I couldn't. Not "I wouldn't," but "I couldn't." I couldn't make myself write the words; only by using ellipses can I suggest the . . . horror, the horror. Ullch! (Little shudder messes up my typing!) And when you think you know it all, then Chan pulls a last, truly dispiriting crank that will make you laugh . . . and hate yourself for laughing as well.
Then there's "Cut," a kind of inside-the-movies extravaganza by the Korean genius Chan-wook Park, who attracted a world audience with "Oldboy" and has everybody eagerly awaiting "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance," the third in his triptych about revenge. "Cut" is about revenge as well: A movie extra, long ignored by a charismatic director, kidnaps the man, drugs him and then revives him. The director (played by Byung-hun Lee) awakens on the set of his own movie to find his world inverted: Instead of having godlike power over everybody, the extra has godlike power over him. He is bound but ambulatory, tethered by an elastic strap that gives him just enough play to reach a child tied up on a sofa. His wife, a pianist, is also on the set, and she sits at the piano. The problem: She, too, is bound, her fingers splayed all along the keyboard. The extra explains the situation. He will cut off one finger every few minutes -- a pun on the director's power to control behavior by shouting "cut" -- until all are gone. The director can free her only by strangling the child.
What's a fellow to do?
Another question: Who thought up this sick nightmare?
The answer is Park, of course, who is having dark fun with the idea of the power of the director. Of the three tales, this episode is the most viscerally intense, unspooling in real time, full of blood and violence as well as justice and insanity. Given the narrowness of the problem, the solution is completely unexpected -- and completely unforgettable.
Last is "Box," by the Japanese gonzo-genius Takashi Miike, who has attracted a cult audience on the strength of two international hits, "Dead or Alive" and "Ichi the Killer," and now conjures up a more ethereal tale. A successful novelist is haunted by the death of her sister many years ago. An invitation from a stranger beckons her back to the site of that fatality, and she watches as it is played out again, though this time she must acknowledge her own complicity in the affair. Yes, a box is involved, though you don't want to know why.
Miike's film is somehow more delicate -- though deeply horrible -- having to do more with memory and guilt than actual physical ordeal. It works not toward catharsis but toward the imagery of apocalypse, a different species of deep disturbance. Not quite linear, it is selling a kind of fantasy of violence and redemption, somewhat like the Japanese film "The Grudge," another world hit a few years ago, later remade with American stars and released last year. "Box," to my mind, is more unsettling than "The Grudge," because its madness is located in the nexus of family and sibling rivalry and child sex abuse, not the accident of moving into a haunted joint. To see it is to volunteer to go a couple of nights without sleep.
Three . . . Extremes (120 minutes at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated but not for the gentle of spirit, forgiving of nature and affable of countenance, as it features many raw images of the product of violence.