I became an enormous fan of Asian horror the moment I was exposed to their unique storytelling and vision. It was around 2007 when distributors began importing a flood of DVD titles. I wasn’t the only one who sat up and took notice when this refreshing take on the horror genre reached our shores. Hollywood discovered an ocean of new stories and fished it dry. Not all Asian horror was good but it different and that was breath of fresh air at a time when the genre grew stale.
Dumplings by Fruit Chan is a wonderful example of what makes Asian horror so fulfilling. It derives its story from social and cultural context. The film is about an aging actress who becomes obsessed with a repulsive fountain of youth. Naturally, the price for miracles can be quite high. Not content to be a simple nightmarish tale of one woman’s struggle to stay young and desirable, Dumplings is set in the very real world where the Chinese adapt “one child” rules and women fight the societal pressure to stay young at all costs. This cannibalistic nightmare is a product of the real world which makes it all the more horrifying.
The film also beautifully shot and acted with no sign of cutting corners. Bai Ling, who has come to be known as more of an eccentric kook that an actress, gives a haunting performance as a woman sensitive to the needs and a devilish femme fatale.
The subject is matter is pretty disturbing and there are a few moments that may test your gag reflex. It’s not for the easily queasy. Yet, even those scenes are artfully directed and photographed so they never seem to exist solely for shock value.
Asian horror really differs from our horror in that respect. Whereas American horror filmmakers have no problem taking a group of attractive teens to the woods to be killed off one by one by a masked maniac, Asian filmmakers extract their stories from cultural fears and old world legends. That’s not to say Western horror is devoid of subtext. The best genre films are usually about something other than the scares on the surface. But Asian horror starts with what they fear most. If they’re afraid technology will take over their lives, a vengeful ghost will call its victim on the phone (or haunt a TV set). The supernatural is such a large part of their culture that a character never needs to convince someone they’ve seen a ghost. Of course they have. The movie is spent discovering what that ghost wants.
Dumplings is a smart, well-made horror film that makes me imagine what The Twilight Zone would have been like had Rod Serling been born in China. There is cosmic justice for all poor souls who fool with the nature of things. It’s better to age gracefully than sink your teeth into damnation.
Available on Netflix Instant.