Strange Food

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Review of 'Dumplings', director Fruit Chan

This film set in Hong Kong bases itself on the assumption that women will do almost anything to remain eternally young, and thus please the men in their life. The main character, Qing Li (Miriam Yeung), is married to an older man who has a penchant for ever younger girls. On her wedding day Qing Li makes three wishes - that men will love her forever, that she will feel happy forever, and for youth and beauty.

Years later the pursuit of these aspirations bring her to Mei (Bai Ling). Despite being much older than Qing Li, Mei looks surprisingly young due to the dumplings which she cooks and eats. Mei can sell these as a treatment, but only at a financial and moral price. Qing Li is willing to buy. As the dumplings become Qing Li's drug of choice, we find out that she has entered a hellish reality. The key ingredients in this plat du jour are aborted foetuses obtained from a local hospital.

Qing Li's hell is rooted in her pact with her husband - whose power over her grows as he becomes attracted to ever younger girls. Mei, the dumpling vendor, is apparently an independent woman who has been a gynaecologist and abortionist in mainland China before moving to Hong Kong. But Mei, too, is peddling illusions in this world of male power. If Qing Li will eat her food, Mei promises, "You'll soon regain your youth and the heart of your man."

It is difficult to know whether this film is assuming or questioning this state of affairs? Does it want to be taken seriously as a horror movie, or is it more tongue in cheek than that? Certainly some of the gruesome scenes involving foetuses more than justify its 18 certificate. But if the film is supposed to be a critique of assumed gender power relations, it does not succeed. I couldn't help feeling that Qing Li would have been better off having an affair rather than obsessing over her husband.

Of course, this is her personal tragedy, but Dumplings turns this into a tragedy of all womankind. This is a world where Qing Li's friends discuss her youthful appearance behind her back, and her only interactions with her husband are attempts to seduce him, and prove her success in the competition against his latest youthful lover.

Dumplings is beautifully shot, as you would expect from cinematographer Christopher Doyle - who was responsible for the beautiful 2046 and the exquisite In The Mood for Love. Some shots of eggs being broken made me laugh with delight.

As a tale of decadence (a young girl spends 18 hours in labour in an undrugged abortion to feed the addiction of Mrs Li to human flesh) or as tragedy (Mrs Li fails to understand the predicament she finds herself in) it has a certain elegance. The fact that poor women in this movie find themselves open to exploitation by the wealthy could have opened an interesting discussion of sexual politics. But overall Dumplings fails either to move, thrill or even horrify.