Thursday, February 13, 2014

Women in Horror: Dumplings

Former TV star Mrs. Li is unhappy despite her wealth because she feels like she's losing her looks and the interest of her husband. She turns to Aunt Mei, a local chef with several less than legal side businesses, to provide her with dumplings purported to have regenerative powers. The filling of these dumplings are unborn fetuses from an abortion clinic in Shenzhen. Mrs. Li is reluctant and disgusted at first, but soon eats them readily, focusing on the effects rather than where they came from. She demands faster results and Aunt Mei finally locates a five month old fetus perfect for her needs. All seems right with the world after that, but Mrs. Li needs a continual supply of dumplings to stay young. What is she to do when Aunt Mei goes missing?

Dumplings is a disturbing film that focuses on cannibalism, but is actually a biting commentary on society. Mrs. Li is a beautiful woman with no real visible signs of age, but because she is getting older, society views her as an object declining in value. Her husband has lost interest in her and looks to younger lovers to fulfill his needs, opting to throw money at his wife instead of actually spending any time with her. Instead of looking for conventional methods of preserving her youth, she seeks out Aunt Mei and her aborted fetus filled dumplings, an extreme, sickening, and extremely expensive treatment. Mr. Li, on the other hand, has completely grey hair and looks much older than his wife. He is still seen as attractive and has no problems attracting other women despite his awful attitude and blatant objectification of women. He eats balut every day, which is an undeveloped duck fetus, similar to his wife's penchant for eating underdeveloped human fetuses. Both of these people are aging, but society treats them very differently, leading them to view themselves differently as well. Mrs. Li is desperately clinging to her youth through any means possible while Mr. Li is allowed to age and feel secure in himself. This is a commonality with both Chinese and American society.

One of the most disturbing scenes of the film has nothing to do with eating human fetuses. The scene in question is the black market abortion Aunt Mei performs on a young girl named Kate raped by her own father. Aunt Mei makes the procedure much more painful and prolonged in order to keep the 5 month old fetus edible by not using any anesthetic or drugs to induce labor. The fetus is male, which is a rarity because male children are much more desired with the one child law in place. They are more desired, causing many female fetuses to be aborted because of their gender. Since 1990, male births consistently outnumbered female births by more than 10%. The film uses the allegory of eating the fetuses to show the disposable nature of female fetuses in that society. The male fetus took a while to locate and was only available because of its incestuous origins. Kate's situation was tragic, but it seemed as if her mother would have lived with a rapist if the evidence could be gotten rid of. Seeing how rape victims are treated in more egalitarian societies, I'm not surprised that her mother didn't go to the police. Kate's death didn't mean much to anyone in the film except her mother. A couple of men sat in her blood on the bus, but they didn't stop to see if someone needed help. She simply bled to death in the street with only her mother to cry over her, which was the result of being both poor and female.

Class plays a large part in the film as well. Agelessness is something that can't be bought by usual channels, so Mrs. Li has to go into a poor neighborhood to Aunt Mei for her remedy. Aunt Mei is outside of society in a lot of ways. She's over 60 years old, but appears in her thirties, proving to be above society's usual scrutiny about aging women. Although she lives in a poor area and doesn't have a lot of material wealth, Mei is happy and doesn't seem to want for anything. Mrs. Li in contrast is incredibly wealthy, but also very unsatisfied and unhappy with her life. After Aunt Mei falls in love with Mr. Li, she refuses to make her dumplings for Mrs. Li, no matter how much money she offers. Mrs. Li's money does nothing to fix her problems and means nothing to Mei.

Unfortunately, Aunt Mei is an exception in that society. Although abortion is legal and sometimes even required in China, Kate's family can't afford a legal abortion, forcing her to get a black market abortion that ends up killing her. The only way the situation gets any police attention is because her mother stabs her father. The masseuse who Mr. Li impregnates is sexually harassed by him. She accepts Mr. Li's abuse and Mrs. Li's bizarre request to abort her baby for money. She also shows no real emotion for Mr. Li or her fetus. She was merely using the situation to make money, ascend in class, and improve her life while separating her emotions.

Dumplings is an excellent film that looks at the treatment of women and the difference in class in China. The cannibalism and abortion can overpower what the film is actually about because viewers can get so offended by these issues. Bai Ling gives a nuanced, strange performance as enigmatic Aunt Mei. I like that everything isn't neatly tied up at the end and it's definitely up to interpretation. The film is undeniably disturbing, disgusting, and uncomfortable to watch. If you can get past the cannibalism, it's definitely worth a watch.

My rating: 9/10 fishmuffins

No comments: