The old proverb says beauty is only skin deep. This is all well and good - but what if you live in a world where it's the only asset you can rely upon?

This question forms the basic premise of Fruit Chan's Dumplings, successfully expanded to feature length from its original short format as one third of the 2004 anthology Three Extremes.

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With middle age fast approaching, ex TV soap star Qing Li (Miriam Yeung) worries that her husband Sije (Tong Leung Kai-Fai) may be losing interest and looking to trade her in for a younger, newer model. Her suspicions are well founded as the silver-haired lothario is currently carrying on an affair with their maid (Pauline Lau).

Soon Qing hears of a mysterious chef from the mainland whose recipes are said to have remarkable restorative powers. She tracks the woman, Mei (Bai Ling), down and partakes of her expensive dumplings, which prove to have the desired anti-aging effects. The only thing is that the secret ingredient in the ex-abortionist's recipes is human foetus...

Despite this seemingly lurid subject matter Dumplings is not a horror film in the conventional sense, with little in the way of sudden shocks or gratuitous gore for its own sake. Instead, the horror here lies in the basic plausibility of the premise as extrapolation rather than invention - the laws of supply and demand and all that - and the matter-of-fact presentation, the sequences of Mei cheerfully preparing her special dumplings - for instance - coming across as equally at home within a domestic melodrama or women's picture.

Or perhaps this is what Dumplings really is. But, again, if Chan deploys the genre, he does so in that subversive, double-edged way, encouraging now identification, now reflective distance from his contrasting characters and environments in a manner perhaps suggestive of a post-feminist Sirk - as when, for instance, a shot of idealised smiling children in a picture on Mei's wall provides a telling, ironic counterpoint to her hard-headed pragmatism and profession elsewhere.

While beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, Dumplings is a beautifully crafted, thoughtful and thought-provoking piece of cinema that once again confirms Fruit Chan's status as Hong Kong's best filmmaker, Wong Kar-Wai included.

Reviewed on: 19 Aug 2005
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Ageing star seeks out an anti-ageing recipe... just don't ask about the special ingredient.
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Director: Fruit Chan

Writer: Fruit Chan, Lilian Lee

Starring: Ling Bai, Pauline Lau, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Meme Tian, Miriam Yeung Chin Wah, Miki Yeung

Year: 2005

Runtime: 91 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Hong Kong


EIFF 2005

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