By Scott Mendelson
Three... Extremes is a two-hour anthology with three 40-45 minute short films by three of Asia's most celebrated horror filmmakers. Unfortunately, all three of these shorts defy easy, non-spoiler descriptions, so this might not be the longest review ever written. The film's greatest strength as a whole is that each of the three pieces represents a completely different sort of horror film.
To wit... The opening segment, entitled 'Dumplings', involves a seemingly miraculous de-aging product and its mysterious origins. This curtain raiser is a pitch-black comedy that eventually deals with this critic's very favorite comic subject (and, as a side-note, shares certain similarities with my favorite dirty joke, involving tomatoes in a brothel). Director Fruit Chan wisely reveals the 'twist' early on, so that the majority of the film allows the audience to revel in the astounding horror of the situation at hand. Of course, much of the comedy eventually comes from just how much the director is actually showing us, much of it the sort of thing that a more straightforward film would keep off screen. Yes, one should note that the piece deals with the ever-increasing mania to stay young and look younger, no matter how immodest the proposal, and it succeeds just such a social satire. But the important thing is that 'Dumplings' is a terrifically shocking black comedy about one of the funniest things that a person can joke about.
The second segment, Park Chan-Wook's 'Cut' is the purest example of unmitigated human horror of the three segments. In short, the story begins when renowned comedy director Ryu Ji-Ho walks into his house to find a rather angry stranger, a tied-up little girl, and his wife tied to their piano and in great peril. What follows in a long game of wits, with the angry stranger taunting the director, daring him to be a flawed man, angered that he is in fact a decent man, since rich people aren't supposed to be decent too. This is easily the most visually frantic and viscerally jolting film of the set, as well as the most blatantly violent and gruesome. 'Dumplings' has a matter of fact visual presentation of its more shocking subject matter, but 'Cut' has more pure violence and gore. At its heart, it's about how one allegedly good man is consistently forced to choose between two terrible, immoral choices, while trying to bare his soul to the intruder in a desperate stab at sympathy.
If 'Dumplings' is the black comedy, and 'Cut' is the visceral terror show, then 'Box' is the subtler, more elegant tone poem of the set. Directed with subtlety and patience by Takashi Miike, the story concerns a woman torn over the memory of the death of her twin sister, and the consequences of her accepting an invitation to revisit the place where she died many years ago. 'Cut' moves very slowly at first, daring to be almost dull in order to build a mood and sense of silent dread and mystery. The film depends purely on silence, and it uses that silence to surprise the audience on at least two occasions, when that calmness and introverted quiet is shattered without warning. 'Cut' may not be the one that everyone talks about when they leave the theater, but it is perhaps the most successful in terms of building tension and suspense.
Three... Extremes (no, that's not a typo, the title really is written as such) is a delicious and macabre experiment, the sort of which we should see more of from directors both American and abroad. For an older, campier anthology, try Creepshow (made in 1982, it contains at least one classic segment starring, of all people, Ted Danson and Leslie Nielsen). Horror by nature often works best in small, potent doses, and the short film format allows directors to experiment in a way that they might not be willing to with a full-length feature. And, of course, this film truly does feature three extremely different kinds of horror stories, so the title is apt. Three... Extremes is a wonderful idea, well executed, and (most importantly), very very creepy.