Anthology films are mixed bags by nature, partly because multiple novella-length features rarely complement one another when stitched together, but mainly because directors tend not to bring their A-games to a side project. If nothing else, the horror anthology Three... Extremes, a trio of macabre shorts from first-rate Asian filmmakers, provokes a strong effort from everyone involved, though they're not all wholly successful. There isn't much to connect the three in terms of style, which ranges from Park Chan-wook's thick baroque sensibility to Takashi Miike's uncharacteristically elegant formalism, but each concern the capacity people have for vindictiveness and cruelty when their feet are in the fire. Whether due to vanity, jealousy, or sheer desperation, the leads in all three stories commit atrocities that would seem beyond their capabilities.
In Chan's queasily effective "Dumplings," Miriam Yeung plays a stressed-out trophy wife in need of some polish, lest her wealthy husband leave her for a newer model. For this, she turns to the giddily sadistic Bai Ling, a former gynecologist who has parlayed her old career into a new one making "special" dumplings for older women seeking a miracle rejuvenation cure. Taken literally, the premise of aborted fetuses being ground up and cased in fried dough is distasteful in the extreme, especially when Chan plays up the sound of teeth grinding through the gristle. It's more acceptable (though blunt) as social commentarythe rich gaining luster by making a meal of the underclass, basicallybut that doesn't make it any easier to digest.
Made between Oldboy and Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, the second and last entries in his revenge trilogy, the disappointing "Cut" is concerned with Park's usual pet theme, but it feels like he's going through the motions, albeit with his usual surplus of technical brio. Lee Byung-hun stars as Park's alter ego, a popular film director who returns home to an invader who ties him up and forces him to choose between atrocities: the murder of an abducted child, or watching his pianist wife get her fingers chopped off one by one. Gradually, Lee's response to this torment makes him seem as villainous as his captor, but Park's idea of revenge spreading like a poisonous contagion gets lost in the baroque unpleasantness.
The last and strongest of the three is Miike's "The Box," which is more abstract and less immediately accessible than the other two, but looks and feels unlike anything Miike has done. Unfolding like a waking dream, with memories of a past trauma flooding into the present, "The Box" follows Kyoko Hasegawa, a successful but lonely author whose latest book attracts an editor that reminds her of her childhood. As a little girl, Hasegawa and her twin sister were contortionists at their father's traveling magic show, but one night, her jealousy over her sister's close relationship to him leads to tragic consequences. Few directors are as "extreme" as Miike, but ironically, his entry in Three... Extremes is the least explicit; its suggestive tale of envy and guilt resembles Edgar Allen Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" more than Miike's usual six-per-year gorefests. Could this mark the start of a new phase in his career, or will it be back to business as usual?