Mei’s tenement is old and part of a large complex (one of the identical buildings is numbered 40). Kowloon is the lower class and more distinctly culturally Chinese peninsula across from wealthy, British, and cosmopolitan Hong Kong Island.
Visiting the Li’s house during the remodeling, Mei realizes how wealthy they are.
Mr. Li explains he will be out of town, though he’d promised earlier to stay for their 15th anniversary. He writes a check and gives it to her:
Poolside, Mr. Li enjoys a “goodie,” an egg with a highly developed chick. The 2004 film appeared within the active memory of the 1997-98 Hong Kong “bird flu” epidemic during which at government order, all poultry in the region was destroyed. While many Chinese people have eaten or commonly know of this dish, after the epidemic it resonates with a certain danger.
Mr. Li enjoys his massage while opening a delicacy egg.
Mistress: "The pay would be enough for me to live well for a while." In Hong Kong, the cash nexus dictates the bottom line.
As Mrs. Li leaves, having asked for more potent dumplings, a mother arrives with her pregnant daughter, seeking an abortion.
Mei declines, saying it’s illegal.
Mei tells them to go to the Mainland. The mother says she can’t afford it.
Mei declines to perform the procedure on the first visit.
Returning home after the abortion, the daughter bleeds out and collapses.
Police arrive to find the mother has stabbed the father in front of the altar to their dead child: enlarged student ID photo, traditional Buddhist incense and fruit, and Mickey pattern curtains.
At the Shenzhen hospital with Mei’s nurse procurer. Mei used to work there.
Dumplings dramatizes/allegorizes neoliberal transnational capitalism. Capitalism is commonly divided into three sectors. The primary production sector creates capital through extraction of primary resources (mining, oil drilling, agriculture — farming and animal husbandry, forestry, fishing, etc.). The secondary sector creates capital through transforming raw materials, manufacturing (light and heavy) and construction. Finally, the tertiary sector works in the area of services ranging from its most everyday face as retail to corporate machinations including finance, insurance, and so forth.
The film is set within the specific location of Hong Kong (HK Special Administrative Region) and the cross-border adjoining urban area of Shenzhen. Shenzhen is famous for being the first of the Special Economic Zones established by Deng Xiaoping in 1979. It has been spectacularly successful and essentially went from being a backwater to a boomtown within a decade. China’s busiest port, Shenzhen is one of the fastest growing cities in the world, completing a high rise building every day of the year. The cost of labor here is much less than in adjoining Hong Kong, and although located in the southern region where Cantonese is spoken (also the common language of Hong Kong), actually Mandarin is the most commonly spoken language with migrants from all over China who were attracted by the opportunities for employment. The city is one of the most productive for manufacturing. For example, almost all Apple iPods and laptops are made here.
This is itself a significant aspect of the place. Like economic zones around the developing world (Mexico, Indonesia, India, Philippines, etc.), the opportunity for employment heavily draws people from impoverished rural areas and simultaneously changes basic social patterns. Essentially this repeats the general pattern of industrial capitalism driving people off the land and into urban factories in the 19th century West.
For example, single women can find better paying employment than in their home communities, but are then detached from traditional family structures and customs. This has both positive and negative aspects. It frees the women from conservative patriarchal tradition, giving them freedom to earn and spend and live without traditional supervision. Yet they are alienated from their families, heavily supervised in the workplace, and face working conditions that are often harsh, without government regulation or unions to protect basic workers rights. They often must labor in unsafe and unhealthy workplaces and under other sweatshop conditions.
The particular form this takes in China relates to the hukou system, in which people are registered by family residency, which keeps people linked to their birthplace. But this has been drastically changed by large-scale migration, especially from rural areas to urban areas. The new arrivals are, for the most part, “undocumented aliens,” who do not have access to many government services such as healthcare because they lack proof of legal residency.
The film begins with Mei transiting from Shenzhen to Hong Kong at the border immigration checkpoint. She carries a familiar metal lunchpail (like the tiffin-box in India). Yet as we soon discover, she is actually smuggling her “special foreign ingredient” into Hong Kong. Of course, Hong Kong is best known as an entrepot, a port city established for trade, being an interface between materials taken from the inland area (the Mainland) and perhaps offering some added value in manufacturing (thus taking raw silk and making cloth or clothing) before exporting.
Thus what we actually witness on this specific character narrative level is an allegory of China/Hong Kong economic relations. China produces raw materials by extraction (literally, in this film, by abortion to produce dead fetuses), which are then taken to Hong Kong by Mei (smuggling), where they are transformed by artesian manufacturing (making the dumplings in her kitchen) and served up as part of a service economy to an eager consumer (the wealthy Mrs. Li). Mei lives in an old public housing project in Kowloon.
Mrs. Li and class
The dumplings are consumed by Mrs. Li, who is a secondary or parasitic member of the elite class of capitalists; she herself produces nothing of value. Even when she throws a party for her women friends, it is a catered affair in the luxurious hotel in which the couple lives — with all the preparations, cooking, service, and cleaning done by the hotel staff — while the mansion residence is being remodeled. Her only labor is to choose a bottle of wine to be served.
In discussion with Mei, she says she knows of her husband’s affairs and would not be upset if he was discrete, but he doesn’t hide them. Mei responds that she thinks Mrs. Li will never divorce; Mei did divorce her husband and declares she is “free,” self sufficient in making a living. But Mrs. Li is locked into simply being a trophy wife, and as such her physical beauty is her main asset, yet one with declining value as she ages. Thus for her, arresting age is not simply a matter of vanity or pride, but has a material basis in protecting her financial well-being.
Mr. Li and class
Mr. Li is a highly successful capitalist, but is never shown in a workplace such as a factory, or construction site, or offices in the financial district, etc. Rather, he only seems to conduct business on the phone: poolside at the hotel or in his temporary suite while the house is being remodeled. He seems to be the paradigm of the tertiary sector capitalist: producing no material thing, but moving money around as an occupation. He is remote from the workplace, the place for actual production of value. He travels and is gone for several days at a time, and he conducts affairs with his mistress in the same hotel, on the same floor. He writes checks to his wife to make up for his emotional detachment. And he eats eggs with well-formed chicks in them; said to be rejuvenating.
We first meet Connie Zhao, the young woman, while she gives Mr. Li a foot massage next to the swimming pool. He playfully tries to caress her, and she gently rebuffs and scolds him while laughing.
Later we see her having sex with Li, and even later observed by Mrs. Li emerging from a gynecologist’s office, revealing her pregnancy. In the denouement, Mrs. Li arranges a meeting with her in a classy restaurant where the two negotiate the terms of the mistress’s abortion. The masseuse shows her cold-blooded calculation: she is young, five months pregnant, and only has to carry four more months. Mr. Li is not only paying her now but will pay for the male heir; she’s young and can use the cash to jump-start her adult life.
Mrs. Li’s counter-offer is just as calculating:
We are lead to assume that Mrs. Li’s motivation is to remove her rival from the scene and make sure there is no (culturally highly valued) male child to distract her husband. She deliberately disrupts filial succession. With the deal struck, the pair appear at the gynecologist’s office for the procedure: Mrs. Lee wants to watch, insists on an induction without chemicals, and wants to carry away the fetus. It is only in the final scene when we fully understand her motives: she begins to chop up the fresh fetus to make dumplings for her own consumption.
The schoolgirl, her mother, and class
As Mrs. Li departs after a dumpling meal, a mother arrives with her schoolgirl daughter, explaining the child is pregnant. Mei confirms the pregnancy and the mother pleas for an abortion, urging her silent daughter to plea for help. Mei refuses, telling the mother it can be done safely in Shenzhen; the mother replies that they cannot afford that. Again Mei refuses. The mother pleads: the girl just 15, a child, how could she care for a baby? Again Mei defers; finally the mother says that the girl was raped by her father. Mei still refuses (in the feature version; in the short she then begins the procedure).
But after visiting the remodeling of the mansion with Mrs. Li, and realizing how wealthy the Li's are, and how desperate the wife is for a faster rejuvenating process, Mei stops at the mother’s apartment to say she will do the procedure. Mei’s motivation is thus strongly marked as mercenary.
The abortion proceeds without chemical intervention, with Mei only inducing a catheter, which takes much longer and puts the mother at much greater risk. Riding the bus on the way home, the post-operative girl begins to bleed out, and then collapses on the street with her mother hysterical.
The film returns to their apartment when police respond and we find the mother has murderously stabbed her husband next to an altar to the dead teen. Thus this story line also disrupts filial succession.
Mei and class
Mei is introduced only as a dumpling maker who promises her clients a food that will bring youth. In the next sequence, she is seen in a mainland hospital in Shenzhen, buying black-market aborted fetuses. We learn she used to work there. At the Shenzhen hospital, Mei’s nurse-procurer points out Mei’s ex.
The Mao’s directive to the party cadres, “Serve the people,” in the PRC past, (and under socialism providing state health care for the masses during the one family/one child policy) becomes, in the Hong Kong present, working in the food service sector preparing dumplings for a wealthy clientele. The communist slogan, “Serve the People,” becomes the capitalist advertising slogan, MacDonald’s hamburgers: “Billions Served.”
In contrast to the Li’s, privileged native Hong Kongers, “flexible citizens” who occupy only a transnational cosmopolitan space, Mei is adept at kitchen work, and knows Chinese history and culture, giving Mr. Li a lesson about the long and legendary history of infanticide and cannibalism in Chinese history.
Mei’s self-presentation is disarming, witty, and sometimes ironic. Her hair is always slightly loose, her gestures rather broad. She dresses in contrasting splashy bold prints, wears tight pants, and low cut tops that show her breasts when she bends over.
In contrast, Mrs. Li presents herself as especially conservative and insecure (perfectly coiffed with everything in place, dressed always in stylish and pricey designer fashions, keeping her matching purse nearby, and restrained in gesture and movement).
During the abortion sequence Mei works efficiently and with the kind of “routine sincerity” of a medical professional, offering a kind of supportive cheer. In her meeting with Mr. Li, Mei is sexy and seductive, and she clearly eyes him up as her main chance.