Opening shot: at the Shenzhen/Hong Kong border, Mei crosses with a lunch pail.

Upon her client’s arrival, Mei asks Mrs. Li to guess her age. Mrs. Li looks at Mei.

Mei returns the gaze. This shot/reverse shot privileges the pair and binds them through comparison. Through much of the film the pair are bonded in mirror shots and two shots which invite comparison and contrast. The high point of this trope comes when they visit the Li’s mansion which is being remodeled and discuss gender politics and their respective life choices.

Mr. Li first appears at the luxury hotel outdoor swimming pool in a modern high rise building on Hong Kong Island, the central business and financial district.

Upset because her body begins to smell fishy, Mrs. Li phones Mei.

Mr. Li listens in on the conversation and learns about Mei’s special cuisine.

Mei listens to Mrs. Li’s anxieties.  Throughout the films she touches her body: caressing her breasts, adjusting her bra, examining her bare feet, scratching.  She swigs wine while cooking, eats snacks that require breaking a seed pod and discarding the shell, wipes sweat from her brow with the back of her hand.

While talking with Mei, Mrs. Li sees a rerun of her TV show, shot 15 years before.  Seeing herself as a 20-year-old playing a teen schoolgirl, Mrs. Li begins to break down and cry over her lost youth.


Serving the peopleDumplings

by Chuck Kleinhans

“When they travel, goods become more precious and human life cheaper.”[1][open notes in new window]

In Dumplings (Gaau ji, aka Gaudzi, Hong Kong, 2004) director Fruit Chan presents a disturbing social satire using creepy taboo topics of cannibalism and abortion to pump up the shock and to underline ethical issues of capitalist culture. With a foundation in class politics, the feature interweaves grotesque horror imagery and a critique of the cult of youth and the commoditization of beauty in contemporary consumer society.[2]

The film tells the tale using three central characters. Miriam Yeung Chin-Wah plays Ching Li, an aging former television actress famous for her earlier ingénue roles. In the film’s present she wants to regain her youth to keep her philandering husband’s attention. Her husband, Mr. Li, a successful older businessman, played by Tony Leung Ka-Fai, writes his wife big checks to barely excuse his extramarital affairs. And Bai Ling enacts Auntie Mei, a former medical doctor in the PRC who now lives in Hong Kong making special dumplings which promise to rejuvenate those who consume them. Once the dumplings seem to be working, Mrs. Li wants faster results, which begins her downward spiral.

Because the film raises significant matters of contest and cross-cultural analysis, this article will proceed with a number of detours.  I suggest readers can easily follow the essay in a non-linear fashion, navigating to key topics as they choose, and skipping one area to return later.  The accompanying visual analysis also invites this hypertextual reading strategy.

  1. Introduction
  2. Synopsis, feature length version
  3. Synopsis, short version (40 min.)
  4. Star image
  5. Gender and class in a market economy
    °Mrs. Li
    °Mr. Li
    °The mistress
    °The schoolgirl and her mother
    ° Mei
  6. Cannibalism and the fetus image
  7. Disturbing images
  8. Theme: perverse sentiments
  9. The writer
  10. The cinematographer
  11. The director
  12. Dumplings theory
  13. Afterword

Synopsis, feature length version

An attractive 30-something woman, Mei, crosses from Mainland China to Hong Kong through immigration with a lunch pail. At home in a small apartment she begins to cook, sampling what appears to be a pink prawn.

Mrs. Ching Li, a well-dressed bourgeois woman, arrives at the public housing building and looks for Mei. While Mrs. Li waits, Mei prepares dumplings with ingredients she brought from the mainland. Mrs. Li tentatively takes the first one, but drops it. Mei tells her to think of the results, not what it was. While Mrs. Li finishes the dish, Mei sings and dances a traditional song.

At the outdoor pool of a luxury hotel, Mr. Li gets a foot massage from an attractive young woman with whom he flirts; he eats a delicacy, an egg with a recognizably developed chick. From inside Mrs. Li observes her husband.

In a mainland hospital, Mei obtains aborted fetuses to carry back to Hong Kong.

Returning, Mei prepares another serving of dumplings for Mrs. Li. Mr. Li and the masseuse are seen having sex. Mrs. Li returns to Mei and asks for faster results in rejuvenation.

As she leaves, a mother brings her pregnant schoolgirl daughter, asking for an abortion. Mei refuses, saying it is too risky, suggesting going to the mainland. The distressed mother pleads, finally saying her husband raped his 15 year old daughter. Mei still refuses.

At the hotel, Mrs. Li sees the mistress leave a tray of food outside a door in the hallway and hears her husband’s voice from behind the door.

With Mei along, Mrs. Li goes up into the Peak district to see the mansion she and her husband are remodeling while living in the hotel. Mrs. Li expresses her bitterness about her husband’s affairs. Mei observes that Mrs. Li is rich, but Mei is free, her own boss; Mrs. Li will never divorce. Again Mrs. Li wants faster results.

Mei finds the mother and arranges for the abortion to be done. The abortion procedure is presented.

Afterwards, Mrs. Li arrives and Mei describes how the 5 month old fetus, a male and conceived by a virgin girl from her own father, is especially potent. Mrs. Li devours the (slightly crunchy) dumplings. A phone call informs her Mr. Li has broken his leg, and she returns to the hotel where he is in bed in a cast. She initiates sex play, saying he now needs her.

On a city bus, the schoolgirl is bleeding out from the abortion, and collapses on the street, her mother hysterical.

Mrs. Li caresses her skin; at a hotel dinner for a group of women, they remark on how she seems younger; but they also notice a fishy smell. Mrs. Li panics and takes a perfumed bath, calls Mei who says the smell is because the rejuvenation is working.

Mr. Li listens in to the call. He then appears at Mei’s place, asking if it really works. Mei flirts with him and he has quick rough sex with her. He is stunned to discover she is actually in her 60s while appearing to be in her 30s.

Mrs. Li goes to her MD about her symptoms. Departing, she sees the mistress leaving a gynecologist’s office while a staff person says she missed her ultrasound appointment and should call if she continues to have morning sickness. She finds Mei in the apartment building’s beauty shop; Mei says she can’t supply Mrs. Li anymore (implying to the audience that Mr. Li will now be her patron).

The police show up at the apartment of the dead schoolgirl to find the mother has stabbed her husband.

Mei is seen quickly leaving her apartment.

Mrs. Li meets the mistress in a restaurant and offers to pay her twice what Mr. Li would pay for the male she is carrying to come to term. Mrs. Li wants it aborted now.

Mei is seen in the mainland, appearing as a laborer on the street.

The abortion takes place in a gynecologist’s office. Mrs. Li insists the procedure be done mechanically, not with chemicals; and she will take the fetus. She is seen preparing the aborted fetus for dumplings.

Synopsis, short version

Eliminates the pregnant mistress line and Mr. Li meeting Mei. Mei directly proceeds with the schoolgirl’s abortion.

Mrs. Li goes to her MD and discovers she is now pregnant. In the final sequence she induces an abortion to herself and then prepares the fetus for dumplings.

The short version is more like a wry fable with fewer characters examined. Mei’s mercenary motivation is played down; Mrs. Lee’s final scene seems to display her demented nature.

Star image

Miram Yeung Chin Wah (b. 1974, HK) began a highly successful Cantopop singing career in 1995 and quickly became a star of romantic comedy films playing young women described variously by reviewers and in publicity as “sassy,” “sparkling,” “happy-go-lucky,” “headstrong,” "effervesant,” and notable for infectious laughter. (The Madame Tussaud’s museum in Hong Kong has a wax figure likeness which giggles.) Thus her role in Dumplings as a retired aging TV star involves significant casting against type. There’s no frivolity in her performance, only a deepening seriousness of purpose, though we also see on television clips of her earlier performance as a giggling teen.[3]. The reruns provide a recurring reminder of her lost youth.

Tony Leung Ka Fai (b. 1958, HK) accumulated 92 acting film credits from 1983 to 2006 playing mostly serious dramas. (Not to be confused with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) He has appeared in a wide variety of roles, often emphasizing his conventionally handsome looks, e.g., Election, Ashes of Time, Centre Stage, The Lover (Fr.), Prison on Fire.

Bai Ling (b. 1970, Chengdu, China) began a stage-acting career in China before moving to the US in the early 1990s where she has appeared largely in supporting roles in TV and film dramas, often as an exotic Asian. In Red Corner (1997) she played the Richard Gere character’s assigned Chinese lawyer; he convinces her he is falsely accused, and the pair must challenge a corrupt justice system. (Predictably, official China hated the film.) She played Tuptim in Anna and the King (1999), and is the lead in the forthcoming German feature Shanghai Baby (2007).

A January 2005 Playboy pictorial hyped the Dragon Lady image with highly exaggerated eye makeup and projected Chinese calligraphy on her nude body and a Chinese character tattoo above her crotch. A Google image search turns up many red carpet appearances and “nipple slip” paparazzi photos.

In Dumplings she portrays a 60-something woman who served as a doctor in China, performing thousands of abortions, but who maintains her 30-something appearance by eating aborted fetuses. As Auntie Mei she dresses in colorful bold pattern skinny pants, presents her earthy body with broad physical gestures, eagerly seduces Mr. Lee who begins vigorous sex with her bent over the kitchen table, has a slightly mocking conversational style, and enacts an energetic dumpling maker.[4] In contrast, Mrs. Lee presents herself with a highly controlled upper class decorum, dressed in expensive garments and accessories, and a restricted body language, even in lovemaking with her husband.

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