When it comes to extreme cinema, Asia's the place, but sometimes pushing the envelope can be as banal as following the rules. "Three ... Extremes," an anthology of horror films by three of the region's most notable contemporary directors — Fruit Chan, Park Chan-Wook and Takashi Miike — that play out in decreasingly shocking order and put the audience on edge primarily through what they are willing to show rather than building any kind of narrative suspense. All three look great and the filmmakers deliver a certain artiness, but their overall triviality and the unpleasantness of the first two make for an extremely distasteful experience.
The most conventionally plotted of the three films is also the most repellent. Hong Kong director Fruit Chan's "Dumplings" is a cautionary proposal with Swiftian undertones that youth is best left to the young. Miriam Yeung stars as Qing, a former TV star now married to a wealthy businessman, who will do anything (and that means anything) to regain her youthful appearance. She turns to Auntie Mei (Bai Ling), a beautiful woman whose claim to be much older than she looks is attributed to the secret ingredient in her dumplings. Stopping only to break into song, Mei steams and pan fries batches of the distressingly crispy delicacy for Qing, whose desire for them becomes increasingly desperate despite some unpleasant side effects.
The two lead actresses interact with a wanton sensuality, with Ling in particular embracing the debauchery of her role. But the sultry languor is jarred by the explicitness of Mei's preparations. Chan reveals the gruesome contents of the pastries far too early for it to have any value as a twist, and the film's dramatic payoff is not nearly satisfying enough to merit subjecting us to the visual realization of the idea. Tony Ka-Fai Leung plays Qing's adulterous husband.
Korean bad boy Park Chan-Wook ("Old Boy," "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance") contributes the macabre "Cut," starring Lee Byung-Hun ] as a successful young film director whose perfect life takes an imperfect turn. Park stylishly opens with a film within a film scenario highlighted by a bravura camera move. Ryu Ji-Ho wraps a day on his current film, which is shooting on a set that is an exact replica of his own home. When he returns home that night, the lights suddenly go out and he is attacked, only to awaken back on the film set, where he and his pianist wife are held hostage by a deranged extra (and no, it's not Ricky Gervais).
Once there, the film gets stage-bound, playing out like a grisly, lesser episode of the old Rod Serling TV series "Night Gallery."
The finale is "Box," Miike Takashi's mystery about a reclusive novelist named Kyoko (Kyoko Hasegawa), who is haunted by the accidental death of her twin sister when they were children. It's a beautiful film to look at, with Kyoko's cerulean blue dress and the flames of a conflagration contrasted with the chilly whiteness of a winter landscape, but its ponderousness is off-putting.
'Three ... Extremes'
MPAA rating: R for strong, disturbing, violent content, some involving abortion and torture, and for sexuality and language.
Times guidelines: Stomach-turning hors d'oeuvres, cannibalism and finger chopping
Released by Lions Gate Films. "Dumplings": Director-editor Fruit Chan. Producer Peter Ho-Sun Chan. Writer Lilian Lee. Director of photography Christopher Doyle. "Cut": Writer-director Park Chan-Wook.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times