Posted by Holly
There are some films that push the boundaries of taste. There are other films that whiz past the boundaries of taste, waving maniacally as they barrel through. That’s Dumplings; a film that is so audacious in its concept and execution that you can’t help but enjoy the ride.
The film opens with Mrs. Li stopping into a dumpling shop, run out of the apartment of a woman known as Aunt Mei. Aunt Mei prods at Mrs. Li to guess her age, and when she finally offers a guess, Aunt Mei confidently shrugs it off as she whips up a batch of her famous dumplings. Mrs. Li states she has heard Aunt Mei’s dumplings are the best, but hesitates when the time comes to actually eat them – to the point of dropping the first one onto the floor. “Try not to think about what’s in them,” Aunt Mei reassures her.
What’s in these dumplings, of course, becomes the central focus of the plot of Dumplings. Aunt Mei, a woman who previously made a living performing abortions, eventually discovered the rejuvinative effects of eating the remains of the pregnancies she terminated. Eating enough of her dumplings can restore youth and beauty to such extreme measures that Mrs. Li is willing to go to any length, and spend any amount of money, to achieve this goal. And then things start to get a little crazy.
If there is one film I’m confident we’re unlikely to ever seen an American remake of, it’s probably this. It takes a major taboo (cannibalism), adds in a concept that can be highly controversial in many circles (abortion), and blends them together with unapologetic boldness. And that’s what really sells this film, ultimately – with a concept like this, holding back is the worst thing you can do, and Dumplings approaches it with an unflinching, gleeful attitude. It knows exactly how sick it is, and it enjoys every second you spend squirming through the prolonged scenes of Mrs. Li slurping down each bite, the crunch when she chews.
This film is very much centered on the perspective of its two female protagonists. While some of it exploits stereotypes (Mrs. Li wanting to become young and beautiful again to dissuade her husband’s wandering eye), it also highlights a lot of the restrictions women find themselves in which drive them to these choices. There is a lot of interesting stuff going on thematically, with a vehement rejection of motherhood at the core of many characters’ actions. There is certainly a lot of intrinsically Chinese cultural critique throughout, some of which I can pick up on, and a lot of which I’m sure I haven’t yet.
There are two version of this film, one featured as a short forty-odd minute piece in the anthology Three Extremes. There was also a theatrical version released, which clocked in at over twice the length, and had several expanded plots, plus an alternate ending. Both of these films are great and worth at least one viewing. However, as I was first introduced to the film through Three Extremes, and I find its ending to be infinitely more unsettling, I prefer that one.
This film is ultimately about selfish people who make bad choices, and none of them really end up paying for any of their crimes. Mrs. Li gets a super potent fetus to chow down on, Aunt Mei ultimately evades the police, and life goes on for both of these twisted characters. So definitely take a night to sit back and enjoy this deliciously tasteless treat. Bonus points if you grab an order of take-out dumplings to complete the experience (that’s what my boyfriend and I did). Bon appetit!
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars. This movie is wildly entertaining, once you get past the initial shock.
Scariness level: Low. But what is lacks in chills, it makes up for in making you squirm.
Violence level: Relatively low, depending on your personal triggers. You don’t see direct acts of violence, though you do see Aunt Mei happily butchering fetuses to put in her dumplings. There are also scenes depicting abortion, and the aftermath of a stabbing.
Bechdel test: Most of the major scenes occur betwen Aunt Mei and Mrs. Li, and while they frequently talk about men, they also talk about the food itself, Mrs. Li’s former acting career, among other things. So this is a pass.
Mako Mori test: Both Aunt Mei and Mrs. Li have their own independent story arcs, though you can argue that Mrs. Li’s centers too much around her marriage to count. I feel, however, that her story is her own, as is Aunt Mei’s.