The dumplings are made from fetuses, providing the magic totem for rejuvenation, and the narrative’s illegal/immoral boundaries. While many cultures throughout history exhibit “sympathetic magic” — the belief that eating a totem allows one to absorb its power — China has been especially identified with this idea in recent times. Because its traditional medicine includes making cures from ingredients including insects and animals, and because the traditional culture ascribes curative powers to certain animal organs (from such as tigers, bears, rhinos, and sea turtles), recent highly publicized endangered species policies and enforcement against poaching and smuggling brought attention to the Chinese market.
Cannibalism is often treated with a certain comic touch in film, recognizing the taboo while flirting with its grotesqueness and exaggerating the matter (for example, the dining sequence in Hannibal [d. Ridley Scott, 2001]). But the fetus image can seldom be used for comic effect in the same way.[open notes in new window] Two factors have shaped this in the past 40 years. First, technological advances in medical imaging, including photography, allow for a much more detailed and thus “realistic” visualization of the fetus. Photographs of a developing fetus in the uterus usually result in astonishment and awe at this depiction of normally unseen life. Sequential developmental photos also evoke wonder and amazement at the revelation of a previously hidden process. Thus, we have a way of imagining prenatal life today that previous generations could know only through medical drawings, for the most part. Educational documentaries such as the PBS Nova series, the Discovery Channel, and works aimed specifically at classroom exhibition make these new visuals widely available.
The fetus as image has one resonance in East Asia, but a different one in the U.S. framework. The most important factor in terms of public understanding of fetus images in the U.S. is the success of the anti-abortion movement in taking over the visual culture of “the unborn” (their term) with explicit photos of aborted fetuses. Soon after the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 liberalized U.S. abortion laws, abortion opponents organized public demonstrations, including marches and picketing of abortion providers, often using large photos of aborted fetuses to make their case visually. While many who adapted the “pro-life” position sought change through traditional legal and political means, a very significant wedge of the movement sought an intensely confrontational approach and used the visual support of “atrocity” images to justify their militancy and in particular their in-your-face intimidation of abortion service clients.
The other side, the “pro-choice” position, did not have any particular visuals to support their argument. At best, one might see in Planned Parenthood, a national organization supporting female reproductive rights and services, images of happy (small) families, smiling moms with babies, and so forth. In U.S. campus newspaper ads, visuals show young women expressing confidence in controlling their reproductive capacity. And commercial television ads promote a variety of products for birth control, control of or protection from sexually transmitted diseases, more convenient menstrual cycles, etc.
In part the signifying absence of fetal images in the pro-choice camp is the obvious visual logic of “a picture can’t say ain’t” — that is there is no visual marker for absence or positing a negative. But it also reflects the problem of defining the prenatal tissue as having “life,” or being “human,” or having “consciousness” or a “soul.” These qualities cannot be established by visual evidence alone, since they rest on a more complex (and contestable) understanding that derives from science, philosophy, and religion, and which are not precise, socially agreed upon, or self-evident in the law. In the contest for public opinion and personal belief, the human-likeness of a fetus comes through visually. The questions of what is human, when human life begins, when a fetus is a recognizable individual in religious and moral terms, as well as legal terms that command state intervention for protection, remain unsettled and contentious.
The film uses a deliberately slow build up of visceral disturbance involving the images of the fetuses and abortion.
Mei begins the food prep and puts the (as yet unexplained) special ingredient in a bowl with fresh slices of ginger root.
While doing the kitchen work, Mei picks one up; it slips and drops; she picks sit up gain and eats it raw.
On a later visit, Mrs. Li wants to accelerate the process. The audience now knows Mei’s background as an abortionist on the Mainland, and that the “special ingredient” is fetuses. Mei gives an enthusiastic verbal description.
Mei returns to the kitchen and we get the first explicit close up of the flesh: translucent, looking like Gummi Bears candy.
After her verbal description, Mei confronts Mrs. Li directly with a fetus. Mei’s tone and style seems to combine the somewhat offhanded materialism of a professional cook toward the ingredients, a skilled surgical MD who had regularly performed 3,000 medical abortions a year, and a certain mild class antagonism, seeing if she can shock the proper bourgeois woman, her client.
Mrs. Li’s response is to eat the meal without her previous hesitation and to ask on leaving for Mei to call her if she can obtain stronger stuff.
Later, knowing how wealthy the Li’s are, Mei advises the mother that she will perform the schoolgirl’s abortion. She begins in her apartment, inserting a catheter.
Mei avoids using drugs to speed contractions and labor; as a result the labor is protracted.
The fetus is delivered. Mei cuts the umbilical cord, and she tells the mother and schoolgirl to rest for a while.
Mrs. Li arrives for another meal; curious, she peeks into the kitchen and sees Mei with the fresh fetus and placenta from the schoolgirl’s abortion. She panics and runs outside.
But she returns shortly, and in this mirror shot finds Mei in a reverie or mildly ecstatic state, caressing her breast.
The pair regard the fetus together.
And they begin the dumpling making.
Mei chooses to make steamed dumplings.
In the final sequence, following the mistress’s abortion, Mrs. Li handles the male fetus...and a meat cleaver.