Three... Extremes 2

Three... Extremes 2

****

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Hauntings always have a history.

In the case of Three... Extremes 2, it all started in 2002 when Hong Kong filmmaker Peter Ho-sun Chan invited two other directors - South Korea's Kim Ji-woon and Thailand's Nonzee Nimibutr - to join him in contributing to a triptych of ghost stories known collectively as Saam Gaang (or, for its rather limited Western theatrical release, Three). If the pan-Asian experiment of Three enjoyed only modest success abroad, its 2004 sequel Saam Gaang Yi (or Three... Extremes) was a much bigger hit, not least because it featured episodes directed by Japan's Takashi Miike and South Korea's Park Chan-wook, two of the poster-boys for the whole 'Asia extreme' movement.

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Hoping to cash in on the popularity of Three... Extremes, American distributors were quick to release Three... Extremes 2 - not only one of the most daftly unimaginative titles in cinema's history, but also one of the most misleading. For Three... Extremes 2 is in fact just the original Three, rebranded, retitled and, like one of its ghostly characters, brought back from the dead - and viewers who have been lured by the promise of 'extremes' in its newly fashioned title may well be disappointed by the film's relative restraint. What is more, time-warped so crudely from its original historical context, Three... Extremes 2 now looks more derivative than it really ever was.

Take, for example, the first short film in this collection, Kim Ji-woon's Memories. The images of a little girl with a cute backpack seems to have been borrowed straight from Hideo Nakata's Dark Water (2002), as does the setting of a key scene on the roof of an apartment building; while a creepy effect in the building's elevator (wherein the same ghostly figure is passed on each floor) appears to have been stolen wholesale from Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on: The Grudge (2003).

Yet in fact Ji-woon's piece roughly coincides with Nakata's, and pre-dates Shimizu's, so that, for all its play upon tropes made familiar by J-horror (long-haired spectres, distraught mothers, telephone calls from beyond), Memories was right at the cutting edge of Asian psychological thrillers, paving the way for Ji-woon's supernatural masterpiece A Tale Of Two Sisters, released in 2003.

Memories reconstructs the story of an amnesiac and increasingly neurotic husband (Jeong Bo-teok) who suffers from what his doctor terms 'separation disorder', as he struggles to piece together what has happened to his wife since she walked out on him and their young daughter several days ago.

Meanwhile the wife (Kim Hye-su) is even more confused and traumatised, unable even to remember who she is as she drifts through a half-built landscape of urban development, desperately trying to find her way home. Eventually a solution, as haunting as it is shocking, is found for this complex enigma - but it is a credit to Ji-woon's subtle handling of the uncanny that the denouement for this tale of guilt, loss and self-delusion becomes less clear rather than more with each repeated viewing.

The middle piece of Three... Extremes 2, Nonzee Nimibutr's The Wheel, is also its most conventional. Shortly before puppetmaster Master Tao (Komgrich Yuttiyong) dies in mysterious circumstances, he instructs his student Gaan (Suwinit Panjamawat) to destroy his puppets, insisting that they are cursed. Master Tong (Pongsanart Vinsiri), however, remains sceptical, seeing the puppets as a way to enrich himself, his family and the members of his traditional khon dance troupe - and so, even after being almost drowned by one of the puppets, he decides to keep it, thus setting in motion a destructive cycle of greed, ambition, envy and lust.

The Wheel is certainly beautiful to look at, and has just about enough narrative involvement (a dream-within-a-dream structure) and pessimistic moral allegory to keep the viewer's attention afloat, but at the same time there is something frightfully old-fashioned about this Thai film, setting it rather at odds with the more sophisticated pieces that enclose it. For while both Memories and the third short film Going Home share thematic concerns (an unexplained disappearance, the disruption of the family, the mental ravages of loss) and key imagery (family photos, a silent little girl, a spooky apartment block) that lend Three... Extremes 2 balance, cohesion and symmetry, The Wheel stands entirely apart, and one suspects its omission would impact on little more than the film's duration.

The best, however, is kept till last. Like Fruit Chan's Dumplings in Three... Extremes, Peter Ho-sun Chan's Going Home was also released separately on Asian video in an expanded version, presumably in recognition of its extraordinary poetic power.

Widowed policeman Wai (Eric Tsang) moves temporarily into a condemned apartment block with his young, nervous son Cheung (Li Tung-fing). When Cheung, left home alone to play with a little girl in a red coat, goes missing, Wai turns to his only neighbour, Yu (Leon Lai) - a mainlander devoted to looking after his invalid wife Hai-er (Eugenia Yuan). Except that Hai-er turns out to be very dead, and Wai finds himself Yu's prisoner, forced to listen to ravings about the powers of Chinese medicine and Hai-er's imminent resurrection. Yet whether Yu is totally insane or there is method in his madness, destiny has in store an unexpected way of reuniting him with his broken family.

Immaculately framed by Wong Kar-wai's favourite cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Going Home is all at once a ghost story, a kidnap thriller, a moving tragedy, and a meditation on the nature of life, death and photography - all presented with an economy so disarmingly direct that the film's complex spiritual abstractions, irrationally intertwining storylines and violent shifts in mood and genre somehow end up engendering a vision of aching simplicity.

Like Memories, it would make a superb companion piece to Nakata's Dark Water, but it also draws from the melancholic lyricism of Hirokazu Koreeda's After Life (1998). It is as beautiful and sad a piece of urban gothic as you are ever likely to see, making Three... Extremes 2 a far more essential viewing experience than its dumb-assed Western title might suggest.

Reviewed on: 16 Dec 2006
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Tryptich of short horror films, featuring Memories, The Wheel and Going Home.
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Director: Kim Ji-woon, Nonzee Nimibutr, Peter Ho-sun Chan

Writer: Kim Ji-woon, Ek Iemchuen, Nonzee Nimibutr, Nitas Singhamat, Teddy Chan, Matt Chow, Jojo Hui, Su Chao-pin

Starring: Kim Hye-su, Jeong Bo-teok, Pongsanart Vinsiri, Suwinit Panjamawat, Komgrich Yuttiyong, Leon Lai, Eric Tsang, Eugenia Yuan, Li Ting-fung

Year: 2002

Runtime: 128 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: South Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong

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