Okay, everyone knows that the surprise is that there’s no surprise: the age-defying dumplings are filled with foetuses. Chan shoves that fact in our face right up front, with no coy pretence, so we know this is not a mystery with a horrifying secret to be revealed in the final scene. So, given that the whole plot is given away in the first few minutes, what keeps us watching?
Well, gentle readers, what keeps us watching is that Chan is a consummate film-maker, who creates intensely rivetting films. Even though we know what’s in the dumplings, even though the film simply follows Lee Tai (played rather well by Miriam Yeung) through her unsatisfying life, we can’t take our eyes from the screen. I suspect that Chan could make an interesting film from the dialogue in a basic English class: “Good morning. How are you?” “I am fine. How are you?”
But only part of the credit belongs to the director: the rest belongs to the cast. Yeung, a young and slightly ditzy actress previously best known for a string of forgettable romcoms and a lacklustre singing career, gives a convincing portrayal of a strong and still beautiful woman losing her grip on her husband as well as her looks, and determined not to give up either. Tony Leung, as the husband, is as fine as we expect him to be. And although I’d like to be able to say unpleasant things about her, Bai Ling does a great job of the dumpling-purveyor Mei.
Chan loads his film with rich colour and ominous overtones. The comparison between the lives of the two women is harsh: Lee Tai is obscenely wealthy but quite miserable, while Mei, who lives in the poorest end of town in a tiny rundown apartment, seems quite pleased with her life. When the two visit the Lee mansion, which is being renovated, Mei idles in the pool in casual abandon, clearly getting much more pleasure from Lee Tai’s wealth and lifestyle than Lee Tai herself. The message here is stark: Lee Tai wants only what she is losing, and takes no joy from what she has, while Mei, who has little, takes her pleasure from whatever comes her way. A fine philosophy, although the fact of Chan’s realisation of this philosophy in the person of a beautiful woman who makes her living selling baby dumplings makes the irony somewhat pointed.
There’s more than one dig here about the double standard applied to men and women, and the frenzied focus on youth. Lee Tai, married but neglected, is immaculately made-up, coiffured to within an inch of her life, and dressed in full Tai-tai rig, but still miserable. Her husband, considerably older, has a rollicking life seducing young women, and clearly considers himself the cat’s pyjamas. Looking a little closer, though, we see an air of desperation beneath the surface, a clutching at vanishing youth in the person of a young nubile companion. Only the combined talents of Chan and Leung could produce such a subtle undertaste, and it only really reaches the surface of consciousness late in the film, when Lee visits Mei. The contrast is stunning: between Mei, who has youth and independence, and Lee, confident but still aware that his youth is past. She has everything she needs, and happily reaches out for what she wants, while he grasps at any straw to distract him from his faded youth.
I can’t end this review without mentioning one scene, although I won’t give details. Suffice it to say that I very nearly fainted at this protracted, queasy-making scene: not because of the graphic or gory detail, because there was none. No, this scene suggested very vividly (and at length) something that had many women in the audience squirming. If you have a weak constitution, seek your doctor’s advice before seeing this. Otherwise, go for it, because it’s an extremely well-made film with a heart of black humour and social satire.