Sam gang yi// Retrospective: Chan-wook Park
There are a few unusual elements to Sam gang yi, known to the Western world as Three… Extremes. The idea behind the film, or collection of films, is simple: get three highly regarded directors representing three separate Asian countries and let them each make a short horror film. It made great sense for Western distribution companies to pick up the rights to this omnibus feature. At the time, contemporary Asian directors were gaining more mainstream attention than they had in years. Amusingly, the follow-up release in Western markets, dubbed Three… Extremes 2, was actually made first, but didn’t favourably match up to current marketing dynamics.
Timing is everything for cracking into the Western market, so while the original project boasted participation from South Korea’s Ji-woon Kim, it only became a potentially lucrative product after Janghwa, Hongryeon (aka A Tale of Two Sisters) and Dalkomhan insaeng (aka A Bittersweet Life) were made. Although Three…Extremes took nearly two years to make it to the West, it had more name-brand clout than its predecessor. More precisely, it boasted input from two directors who had carved out major cult status in the west: Takashi Miike and Chan-wook Park.
When I first experienced this film, it was via an imported Hong-Kong DVD release (proudly sporting a huge wrap-around Category III1 warning)- the only English-friendly edition that was available. That version maintained the original ordering of the segments with Miike’s Box opening, followed by Chan’s Dumplings, and finally Chan-wook Park’s Cut. Perhaps worried that the most famous of the three- undoubtedly Miike at the time of release- would simply overshadow the others, Lionsgate’s US DVD moved Box to the end and opened instead with Dumplings. While meddling with the running order is neither necessary nor welcome, perhaps they had a point since, in this instance at least, it is Miike’s contribution that shines brightest. Nonetheless, it seems most appropriate to deal with the films in the original order.
Box by Takashi Miike (Japan)
In 2005/2006, Showtime network in the US produced a popular series of horror shorts under the title of Masters of Horror. The idea was to allow horror’s most famous names, some of which had trouble finding funding anymore, a chance to revitalise their careers and to offer fans new material to enjoy. With great relish, despite more famous and established directors also partaking, it was the participation of Japan’s Takashi Miike that was used as one of the show’s major selling points.
His contribution, Imprint, was deemed too potent for the cable network and would only see release on DVD. It was a savvy marketing move that took advantage of Miike’s growing reputation as a demented Asian gore-hound. Unfortunately the film was as transparent and lazy as the marketing that surrounded it. Clearly designed to build on the success of his first major breakthrough in Western cinema, Audition, it played like a shoddy ‘greatest hits’ compilation of the edgier content portrayed in that earlier film. The big problem was that, unlike in Audition, here the violence and turmoil lacked context and thus also lacked impact. This is worth mentioning because, for fans of the director, the closest thing to a follow-up to Audition is actually his contribution to this project.
Delicately poised, Box is arguably one of Miike’s finest creations. Unfolding in dreams, flashbacks, reality, or some construction of all three spaces, we are introduced to Kyoko (Kyoko Hasegawa), an author troubled by her past. In her dreams, shot by cinematographer Kôichi Kawakami in fiery reds and warm oranges as compared to the cold blues and greens of her waking days, she is suffocated by a sheet of plastic, trapped in a box, and buried. She sees visions of her twin sister, Shoko, who in their youth, performed with her as a ballerina in their father’s magic act. Dismayed by her sister’s favoured status, Kyoko locked Shoko in a box and, in a tragic accident, there she remained when a fire engulfed the room.
As events proceed we become aware that reality and dreams are more interchangeable than seemed possible as the woman’s guilt overrides her. Most impressively, like Audition, the film maintains a slow and steady pacing, drip-feeding details as it reveals the full scope of its material. Avoiding shocks almost entirely, the film looks beautiful as the camera alternately settles and sways. Although some aspects of typical J-Horror fare appear, such as spooky young girls with jet-black hair, Miike never stoops to shock tactics. Instead he lets them linger on-screen so that it is their very presence in relation to the protagonist rather than their expected emergence that elicits dread. As the ghost gently turns and rises, the image is both concrete and yet fleeting. The effect is powerful- oneiric and undoubtedly unsettling.
So goes the bulk of Miike’s project, perhaps the closest thing you could find both to his earlier Audition and, in a sense, to the fearful potentiality of Tarkovsky’s slowly exploring camera in Solyaris. The use of simple imagery and uncertain progression bring to mind the effective chills of the Russian master’s film. The wonderful visuals are accompanied by a minimalist soundtrack that consists solely of percussive tones: bells and the gently vibrating tines of a music box.
The depiction of ballet, finding a clear precursor in Audition, is twinned with overtones of sexual abuse and potential incest which are potentially designed to feed on the hinted relationship between that film’s Asami and her malformed mentor. If the weight of familiarity between the two films is apparent, Box is, if anything, even more free-flowing and abstract. Drifting between dreams and reality it is the least rigidly formed of the three films and so possesses a more aestheticised sense of beauty, of rawness, than the others too. As we glimpse suggestive items, dolls and masks, nothing within is explicitly horrible, yet it all manifests with an ever-growing sense of trepidation that we, the audience, share with the protagonist.
With its abstract framing, the mind may roam freely to interpret the various events depicted. We are free to define the real and the allegorical, and to determine if Shoko and Kyoko are different beings or two parts of a single whole. The film allows for but does not demand interpretation or resolution. It seems clear we’re dealing with a treatment of the lingering traumas of sexual abuse, but Miike’s film glides along with such sweet aesthetic precision that even David Lynch might want to grab his notebook. There’s little doubting Miike’s dominance over his peers here. The beauty of Miike’s craft is that he only focuses on that which is immediately in front of him. If this is a triumph for the audience, then Miike might simply classify it as “one of those things I did in 2004.”
Dumplings by Fruit Chan (Hong Kong)
If Miike’s entry is surely the strongest, it’s fair to say that Hong Kong provocateur Fruit Chan’s is the weakest. Dumplings is not lacking in craft or form, but is rather something of a mismatched inclusion. Unlike the other two entries which were written and produced exclusively as short films, Chan’s film also exists in an extended version which effectively doubles the runtime. The result is a film that feels like an excerpt, even if it still impresses, particularly in light of its cultural foundations. To hark back to Miike, as Imprint was an embarrassing attempt to draw repulsion from abortions, Chan’s effort is a comparatively more convincing affair on the same topic. Nonetheless, the pacing here is clearly upset as events and multiple strands of narrative jam themselves into the slim timeframe.
The storyline centres around Mrs. Lee (actress and HK pop singer Miriam Yeung Chin Wah) who, finding her looks fading and her husband’s interests waning (a guest role for Tony Leung Ka Fai) seeks the assistant of Auntie Mei (Ling Bai). Word on the street says that the mysterious Auntie Mei makes the best dumplings in the city. So good, in fact, that those who eat them are rejuvenated and assured a youthful visage for as long as they continue to indulge.
Hardly giving credence to mystery, the film suggests that even from her first meeting, Mrs. Lee recognises the secret ingredient to these magical dumplings. Regardless of this knowledge, the dumplings’ powerful effects prove too tempting for Lee to resist. After all, as her wealthy husband takes increasingly more business trips, it’s becoming clear that he’s not faithful. Seeing new wrinkles everyday, reminded that her glory days as a successful television actress are behind her, Lee needs to regain her youth and she’s willing to do whatever it takes. Suffice it to say, with unnatural gains come unnatural setbacks.
Though pacing problems trouble the project, it still holds together well. Opening like the evil twin of Ang Lee’s Yin shi nan nu (aka Eat Drink Man Woman), an ominous, grinding musical score greets us. Everyday objects, particularly those in Auntie Mei’s kitchen, are shot in jarring close-ups that abstract their otherwise mundane nature. Supervising the camera is none other than Christopher Doyle who ensures an attractive and colourful palette to clash with the film’s often upsetting content- perhaps designed to be reminiscent of the light-hearted TV show that used to occupy Mrs. Lee’s bygone days.
Though it sounds like the stuff of schlocky horror2, Chan is careful to avoid indulging too freely in the awful. With the seed of the story planted, much of what unfolds is suggested through sly images – seemingly ordinary depictions of cooking transformed by the knowledge of what is being cooked – rather than outrageously gory special effects. The exception to this is a subplot involving a young schoolgirl who finds herself pregnant through no fault of her own. With her mother by her side, she seeks an abortion and Auntie Mei is there to help. Her prize is that most rare of specimens in China- a male fetus.
It is this element that suggests more interesting readings of Chan’s film. It’s obviously less interested in being a shocking horror tale as it is in providing a wicked sideswipe at a Chinese society that effectively fosters selective breeding. It may not quite be a feminist parable, suffering from the same romanticism that limits most of Mizoguchi’s work, but it certainly aims some mighty blows against this darker societal current. Other elements also surface although, with the film’s unsteady pacing, it’s difficult to assess how fully they affect the tone. Statues of Chairman Mao can be seen in Auntie Mei’s apartment. While possibly there to suggest her true age- hinted to be far greater than that embodied by Bai Ling’s energetic and sexual presence- it perhaps also hints at China’s lost generation, an astonishing national tragedy that is being repeated to this day under a different guise through the devaluing of female children. It could easily argued that Chan’s film is the most upsetting of the three, hinging more explicitly on real world tragedy than the other entrants, even if its format is more familiar to horror fans. For those who are interested, there’s only one sensible course of action: to seek out the full-length feature.
Cut by Chan-wook Park (South Korea)
It’s arguable that Chan-wook Park now holds the greatest fanbase outside his native country. Made alongside his international breakthrough, Oldboy, his entry here further demonstrates his wicked sense of humour and his assured sense of style. Being honest, there’s little doubt that Park’s film is the most superficial in this triptych, largely a vicious chamber-play structured around some great visual ideas. However, superficiality can’t undermine the palpable sense of absurd fun that propels this film. With too many ideas clashing and floundering over one another, it may not amount to much as the credits roll, but Cut surely stands as the most immediately accessible and deliriously entertaining of the trio.
Opening with a lengthy shot that weaves and winds its way around what seems to be a vampire feasting on her prey, the camera pulls back to reveal it’s all a film shoot. Using extensive CG to link shots by sliding through walls and objects, we’re brought further behind the scenes where we’re introduced to the hotshot director (Byung-hun Lee) supervising this production. Sauntering off the set, the Director always has a quick and wise answer to the plethora of questions asked by his various crew-members, perhaps a nod to a similar sequence found in Truffaut’s La nuit américaine (aka Day for Night). It’s clear from the outset that this guy is undoubtedly the captain of his ship. It’s hinted as he exits that he’s the best in the business right now. If this is meant to be Park, we can’t be sure. Perhaps with more inside knowledge of Korean cinema, the sure-footed Director could bear the hallmarks of another real life figure. It may not be relevant considering what next transpires.
As the Director arrives at his luxurious house, ironically identical to the set he just left, a power cut throws him into darkness and he’s knocked unconscious by an unknown assailant. He awakes to an incredible sight. His hands bound, and an elastic strip tied around his waist to limit his movement, the Director finds himself back on the set and, at the piano in the corner is his wife (Hye-jeong Kang), held in place by countless strands of wire that hang suspended from the ceiling. By her side stands their captor (Won-hie Lim), gluing her fingers to the keys.
The captor then begins to outline a bizarre prospect for his prisoner. This man, a film extra, feels that the Director is too good a human being. Born privileged, the Director had the very best of everything, so it’s no wonder he’s a nice guy. He can afford to be. He has that luxury. The mysterious captor then explains his own situation, a broken home and an abusive, alcoholic father. It’s no wonder he turned out to be a low-life. Feeling that life can’t be so unfair, the captor points to a shape beneath a blanket on one of the room’s sofas. It turns out it’s the Extra’s child and he wants the Director to strangle the innocent to prove that he’s really not so good. If he doesn’t oblige then, with every five minutes that pass, one more finger will be removed from the Director’s wife as she sits helpless at the piano, the instrument of her profession. Finally it’s the Extra’s role to yell, “Cut!”
Filled with venomous humour, combining high violence with wildly inappropriate demonstrations of song and dance, Cut is like a playful experiment to occupy time between grander projects. Thematically it bears resemblance to some of Park’s earlier work, particularly Oldboy which, with the character of Woo-jin, also ticks along thanks to the malevolent mind of an unqualified judge. If Woo-jin didn’t care for the scale of Dae-su’s original error as compared to his revenge then the antagonist in this film also seems keen to ignore the principles of cause and effect as he tries to drag someone else down to his level. Also like Oldboy, as Dae-su claims Woo-jin used hypnotic trickery to erase his memory only to be informed that he actually just forgot, the Director in this film takes a long while to recognise his captor despite his presence on five different film shoots.
So the question the Extra asks is effectively, “How good can you really be when it’s so easy to be good?” It’s a loaded question, and the film plays it out with Park’s usual attention to detail. Production-wise, this is the flashiest of the three films, forgoing more traditional formal techniques for high gloss, computer-augmented transitions. Many of the more ornate techniques here can be seen in Oldboy too and even later in Chinjeolhan geumjassi (aka Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), suggesting that Park found himself quite enamoured with them. It fits just as well here as it does in those other films as both revel in their high stylisation and hyperbole, none of which works against the narrative.
For fans of the Park, it’s also entertaining to see what now looks like a hint towards his later work, the opening vampire tale pointing towards the director’s Bakjwi (aka Thirst). Of course, looking closer, this later feature might provide the most help in decoding Cut. Though it possesses a gleeful tone, Park’s film seems to lack any grander purpose or hook. A few unusual elements keep the audience asking questions, most notably the switch from the film set to the Director’s home and back once more to the film set. With each setting identical, questions regarding the reality of events must be raised. As the film progresses, the balance of power repeatedly alternates. Interpretations of the piece as a dream, wish-fulfilment, or allegory all seem incapable of fully uniting the various elements gathered throughout.
While Cut may primarily be a savage depiction of life imitating art imitating itself, the Director’s deteriorating relationship with his wife points forward to the theme of crumbling moral decorum that preoccupies Thirst. It doesn’t quite gel everything together, but it helps put some shape to the final few minutes where, fighting back against their captor whilst also airing dirty laundry, the couple’s relationship becomes untenable. Once certain barriers are broken, there’s no turning back- so told the slippery moral slope that Thirst’s protagonists found themselves ineffectually clambering against. Finally we have the child, sitting quietly for the bulk of the film, suddenly become involved as he swears he shall have his vengeance for what he has witnessed this day.
In truth, none of it could be taken too seriously. The details of the situation and the exaggerated tone in which it unfolds suggest a master craftsman amusing himself rather than imparting any real message. Nonetheless, when the craft is so finely honed and the runtime so unimposing, it’s easy to just sit back and enjoy. As the lightest of the three films, Park’s makes for a good closing point. With the dichotomy between film and reality utterly broken, at this stage3 there’s no better cue for dropping the curtain and rolling the final credits.
1 See Wikipedia’s article for a brief outline on the rating and its connotations.
2 Such culinary madness can’t help but bring to mind shockers like Herman Yau’s infamous Yi boh lai beng duk (aka Ebola Syndrome).
3 Da-dum tschhh!