American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Three... Extremes" collects directors from Hong Kong, Korea and Japan to make horror films, each about 40 minutes long. The device was common in Europe in the 1960s, where movies like "Boccaccio '70" set assorted directors loose on a vaguely-related theme. Here the theme is horror, and by horror I don't mean the Hollywood routine of shock, blood and special effects. These films are deeply, profoundly creepy.
The first one, "Dumplings," may be unwatchable for some people when they figure out what's actually going on. There could be walk-outs. Some of those who wait until the end may wish they'd left with the others; the movie's closing image is depraved on a scale that might have shocked the surrealists. I say this not in opposition but simply as an observation. All three short films are examples of the Extreme Asia movement, which began as a programming category at film festivals and seems to be expanding into a genre. The point is to push beyond the worn-out devices of traditional horror films, to essentially abandon the supernatural and move into horror that has its expression in the dreads and traumas of nightmare. "Three" (2002) was the first Extreme Asia trilogy, and now here are three more.
"Dumplings," directed by Hong Kong's Fruit Chan, takes the debate about stem cells and other recycling of human body material to its ultimate extremity. I don't think the film's science is sound (I sincerely hope not) but the motivation is unassailable: There are some people who will do anything to prolong their youth and beauty.
That's a classic theme in stories of horror and the supernatural, but consider the scenario here. A former TV star (Miriam Yeung) is still attractive, but no longer acting. Her husband goes on long trips without her and doesn't even bother with alibis. She turns to a woman (Bai Ling) she has heard about -- a perky, cheerful type who works out of a small apartment in a high rise. This woman cooks and serves dumplings. "How old do I look to you?" she asks her client. The actress guesses -- oh, about 30. I would have said even younger. The cook says she's a lot older than that.