Declining to perform an abortion, Mei is set among her ceramic statues, a syncretic collection, while nonchalantly eating melon balls. The pleading mother’s head appears in the mirror while below the lower part of the pregnant daughter’s body is reflected in the glass of the cabinet.
In a final appeal, the mother reveals her husband raped the daughter while the visual shifts to their image reflected in the TV set and the glass cabinet.
Within an elaborate dolly shot, another planimetric composition places men outside the domestic space of the women’s discussion.
Mr. Li visits Mei.
Mrs. Li tries to ascertain the unpleasant smell at her elegant party.
After hurriedly leaving her apartment, Mei re-appears on the street in Shenzhen.
She's carrying her means of production: a charcoal cooker, a frying pan, and supplies.
On her first visit, Mrs. Li notices an old mirrored sign, “Yue Mei’s Loft,” which might be a nostalgic remnant of an earlier dumpling shop, amid the paint-peeling walls and ceramic statues, such as this one of a smiling Buddha surrounded by cherubic babies.
Mei’s collection of figurines includes (l. to r.) a female “barefoot doctor,” emblematic of the early revolutionary era when young volunteer semi-professionals went out to rural areas to deliver basic health care to the peasants. Chairman Mao Tse-tung in a salute, the Catholic Virgin Mary, several versions of Guan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion who is recognized in Buddhist, Taoist, and some Southeast Asian Christian traditions, as the patron of mothers and children, a fertility goddess, and champion of the unfortunate, sick, disabled, and poor. Also in the foreground, a cat teapot with the spout being its upraised paw.
Continuing to pan right: a figure of a peasant militia woman with a Red Guard armband, marking her from the Cultural Revolution Era (1966-76); another Buddha and a Hello Kitty making the familiar beckoning gesture of the Maneki Neko (Japanese Fortune Cat); another cat teapot with the feline holding a carp for the spout. In other shots we see a seated six-armed Shiva, other Hello Kitties, Buddhas with cherubs, and colored prints of Chinese New Year Babies (by tradition, fat and happy and surrounded by images of abundance).
Christopher Doyle is the best known Hong Kong cinematographer, having done camera for all of Wong Kar-Wai’s films.[open notes in new window] Doyle is a master of exquisite planimetric compositions which expressively imbed characters in places, especially in interiors.
He is also a virtuoso of the moving camera, as seen in two sequences in Dumplings. In the first, visiting the mansion under construction, Mrs. Li and Mei have a conversation about the gender politics of their respective histories and situations. The scene is done as a fluid long take (plan séquence) in the space filled with construction materials, with workmen seen outside through translucent green tarps. The two actors move, as does the camera, and the blocking heightens different enunciations, with men literally on the outside, oblivious to the women’s concerns and the women’s understanding of how the world distributes power and (relative) freedom.
The second sequence involves Mei hosting Mr. Li and seducing him. Again there is a moving camera in the constricted space of her apartment. But rather than continuous dialogue, the scene is shot in several takes from different camera positions, and then edited without strict linear temporal continuity. The sequence quickly moves from synch dialogue into non-synch monologue by Mei explaining the long history of cannibalism in China. While partly a way of her verbally controlling the situation while she displays her body, the effect as she serves Mr. Li dumplings and suggestively moves about the space is to link cannibalism to erotic seduction. It works, and he takes her roughly on the table, ending in his orgasm and his simultaneous realization that she is 64 years old, and he is having sex with “an old woman.”
Fruit Chan’s films are known for their realist aesthetics, both in cinematic style and subject matter. In some works this tends to the comic-grotesque, most notably to date in his controversial Public Toilet (2002). His comic imagination appears in Dumplings in various ways. At times it emerges as a setup to a more disturbing point. For example, riding home on a bus after the abortion, we first have a close up of blood dripping from the edge of a bus seat. It’s not immediately clear what is happening, but the next shot locates the mother-daughter pair getting up to leave the bus. Two young fellows involved in an animated discussion of their plans get on the bus and sit in the now-empty seat. Suddenly one of them holds up his hand, covered in blood, and bolts upright revealing the seat of his white pants covered in blood. This physical joke is immediately replaced by a long shot showing the girl falling to the pavement and then a close up panning from her bloody legs to her mother crying in distress. The farcical set up leads directly to the films most pathetic tragedy.
Throughout the film, the plot moves with an extraordinary amount of coincidence, accidentally overheard conversations, and foreboding. For example, in a night time sequence, when Mr. Li leaves Mei’s after dumplings and sex, she directs him down one walkway while we see the arrival of Mrs. Li who has just shown up trying to get more dumplings, after her phone call interrupted the sex. A girl in a schoolgirl uniform, looking at first much like the deceased one walks the same walkway, and Mr. Li turns the corner just as Mrs. Li enters from a stairway at the other end. While a situation from French bedroom farce, with the spouse appearing just as the partner exits, the sequence has an uncanny feel with the schoolgirl’s presence, and a haunting repetition of an older woman getting a facial treatment at the end of the walkway (we saw her in the same situation daytime in the opening sequence of Mrs. Li’s first arrival). The sequence is compounded by including a long shot from across the way in another tenement, with an indistinct foreground figure, hinting at surveillance of the scene.
In a more straightforward comic narrative moment, Mrs. Li hosts a fancy luncheon for her high society female friends at the hotel. They remark about how vibrant she looks and speculate on what her “secret” is. But as she joins them at the table, they begin to notice a funny smell. She tries to elegantly smell the meat on her plate, and then realizes she’s the one who is starting to smell. She runs from the room and in panic begins to take a heavily scented bath. Jokes disguise aggression, and clearly in this case it is class commentary: humiliating the bourgeois woman with stink.
Recently, critics have discussed Fruit Chan in terms of his unfinished “Prostitute Trilogy.” Durian Durian (2000) is a brilliant portrait of a young woman from northern China who in the first half of the film is seen working as a prostitute in Hong Kong and who then returns to her home town with her primitive accumulation of capital to decide what to do next in the mainland’s transition from socialism to capitalism. The 2001 film Hollywood Hong-Kong also has a prostitute from the mainland as the central figure disrupting the lives of inhabitants of a Hong Kong shantytown village that abuts a luxury mall and condominium complex. While Chan has not completed the planned trilogy, Mei in Dumplings, bears comparison with the other two women. As Wendy Gan describes the central character in Durian Durian:
Similarly, Tong Tong in Hollywood Hong-Kong uses her active wits to gain whatever advantage she can within the patriarchal capitalism of Hong Kong. Yet Tong Tong gets what she wants, at the end appearing in Los Angeles with the money she acquired from prostitution and blackmail. Yan thinks of becoming a shopkeeper with her newly obtained capital, but in an elegiac finale decides to return to her original training as a performer.
Similarly, although Mei is not a prostitute, she operates in the illegal sector with her dumplings, and given the opportunity, trades sex for money with Mr. Li. So, while not formally a part of the Trilogy, figuratively Dumplings does stand in close relation to it. After making the connection with the husband, she cuts off Mrs. Li, is seen having her hair done while she paints her toes, and on the phone makes a meeting with Mr. Li. Her plans are cut short by the police investigating the schoolgirl’s death, but she, like Yan, returns to the mainland, a street-savvy survivor.
Given Fruit Chan’s most distinct theme — the depiction of class — as detailed in this issue by Wimal Dissanayake, the most memorable presentation is in the two abortion sequences. As Ian Johnston points out,
Another key aspect of Fruit Chan’s realism appears in the interior details, highlighted by production design and cinematography. These details are central to both narrative and character development. Mei claims that her tenement apartment is just a dumpling shop, but the details hint at other stories or histories. On her first visit, Mrs. Li sees a mirror sign, the type announcing a shop, but Mei has only one table. The sign seems old, as if salvaged from another stage of her life when she did have a more conventional shop (at another point she indicates she came to Hong Kong with her then-husband, a cook).
Similarly, she has a prominent glass cabinet, the type that would be used as the cashier station in a restaurant, but it is now just a sideboard covered with figurines. The apartment is filled with little statues (but significantly not the common Buddhist altar found at the door of most Hong Kong shops). This syncretic collection could remind a U.S. audience of a curandera or fortune-teller shop which are often filled with an eclectic assortment of religious items.
The most startling domestic detail is revealed only when Mr. Li is in the middle of taking Mei from behind on the table. He suddenly sees a color portrait of a young woman, and realizes it is Mei, 44 years earlier. Mr. Li suddenly realizes who is in the photo. The picture commemorates a school variety show presentation. Earlier Mei performed a song and dance while Mrs. Li ate her dumplings.
This revolutionary song was written for a successful music and dance theatre piece in 1959. It was made into a very popular film (Hong Hu Chi Wei Dui, d. Xie Tian, 1961) depicting how the Red Army in 1930 lead local people to fight against the Nationalist army. As with many of the revolutionary operas, the protagonist is a woman who leads the guerilla forces against the warlord bandits. The song, opera, and film were favorites of the 1960s generation.
Mei reprises the song when she visits the Li’s mansion and swims in their outdoor swimming pool. As an orchestral theme, it comes up in the film’s final sequence, providing a bitter irony comparing a nostalgic remembrance of the revolution with the possessive individualism of the capitalist present as Mrs. Li begins to chop up the fresh fetus.