Friday, June 16, 2006

DUMPLINGS/GAAU JI - abortions are yummy

I think it's fair to say that this film is all about eating aborted foetuses. Because it is. But it's not a gore flick, or a horror flick, or some awful and tasteless B-movie from the vaults of Japan. Rather director Fruit Chan, aided by a powerful and capable cast, has created a movie that challenges our preconceptions and our hypocrisies on several hitherto taboo subjects.

The basic plot follows Mrs Li (
Miriam Yeung Chin Wah), an ex-actress and glamourous star, who enlists Mei's (Bei Ling) help in recapturing her youthful looks to regain the (sexual) attention of her philandering husband Mr Li (Tony Leung Ka Fai) - who's fucking everything but the kitchen sink, because, put simply, he likes a fresh piece of ass.

Unfortunately, Aunt Mei's miraculous youth restoring therapy involves eating chinese dumplings made out of chopped up and stewed aborted foetuses. Mei herself was an abortionist in China, before her discovery of the healing properties her patented cannabalistic practice. Bai Ling is stunning as Mei - her performance is as witty as it is serious - she manages to inject comedy and drama where none seemed possible - give the girl an Oscar.

So the plot's a bit grim, and make no mistake about it, there's nothing hidden in this film. That's the wonderful thing about it, it's honest. It graphically depicts a second trimester back-street abortion - it shows the chopping up and preparation of food using first trimester foetuses - the sex scenes are as explicit as they need to be without erring into pornography. This film, cinematographically, is not for the faint hearted. And, just as Argentina's display today against Serbia and Montenegro was a masterclass in fluid, attacking football - DUMPLINGS is a masterclass in film-making. The shots are perfect - it's shocking without being overly graphic - it employs clever tricks like reflections in knives, subverted camera angles, and wonderful wonderful sound effects. The munching of dumplings. The cracking of bones. The plop of a baby into a bowl of water. Marvellous.

But as well as being graphically and thematically captivating and shocking, the film is also genuinely challenging. It passes social comment of the societal pressures on women (and men) to look young, and the lengths we will go to to achieve this goal. It shows us what we are spared by the closed walls of the termination of pregnancy centres - the full horror of a second trimester abortion. It deals with incest, rape, and cannabalism. And it does all these things realistically, without passing too much insulting or obvious editorial comment.

Is this an anti-abortion film? Not in the traditional sense, no. It shows abortion as it is, not as we like to think of it - and it does criticise the horror of the "one child, one family" law in China. But at the same time, it displays the reality of what can happen if we make abortion illegal, following tangentially the drama of a young mother seeking an abortion from Mei. It was a thought provoking experience, one that was moving and uncomfortable all at once. It elevates the debate on abortion above the level of crude, trans-atlantic bickering onto a plain of real intellectual debate. While we cannot deny the homologous nature of the second trimester foetus and the neo-nate and the tragedy of it's death, and the awful sterility of the Chinese abortion clinic - we are confronted with the equally tragic and horrifying notion of the back-street, black-market abortionist, and the tough moral challenges that are faced in some exceptional circumstances.

This really is a great film - one that I can wholeheartedly recommend. While it doesn't stir its audience the the heights of passion and back - or claim frights or adventure - it captivates the viewer in a story that it proves impossible to take ones eyes off. It will provide charming if inappropriate dinner-time conversation for afterward - and will have you chewing over the concepts late into the night, even after Match of the Day has ended. All in all, another fine flick from the far east. Go see!

DUMPLINGS/GAAU opened in South Korea in 2004 and in Germany and Austria in 2005. It went on release in France in April 2006 and is currently on release in the UK. I'd put good money on the proposition that it will never get a cinematic release in the US.

1 comment:

  1. As Nik said, this movie is not a horror flick as the marketing would have you believe, but it IS horrifying. It is also a dark and intelligent satire on the superficiality of modern society and hypocrisy of what can and can't be killed and eaten. The movie is essentially a glorious two-hander between Bai Ling and Miriam Yeung. I was honestly surprised by Bai Ling's brilliant portrayal of the vulgar, physically intense dumpling-cook. And Miriam Yeung brings real pathos to the role of Mrs Li - trapped in a loveless marriage and wearing a succession of lurid Hermes handbags and scarves. Seriously, did this production have sponsorship or did they just buy all those Kelly bags?! Two other gifts are the small role by Tony Yeung Ka Fa. He has been aged with the help of make-up and hair-dye for this role but brings the same edgy-cool that we saw in his role as Big D in ELECTION/HAK SE WUI. But for me, the biggest thrill is the cinematography of Chris Doyle. Known to most as the guy who shot IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE AND 2046, we get all his trademark shots in the flick. Technically masterful, no one makes women look better, photographs sex more sensitively or honestly, or picks up on the detritus of modern life more lovingly. See this film if for nothing other than his photography.