Set It Up
A solid romantic comedy with sharp dialogue, amusing characters, and a few surprises up its sleeve.
HONOLULU -- "I saw your new movie and I thought it was really good," I told Bai Ling.
"You saw 'Dumplings?' "
"I saw the 'Dumplings' episode in 'Three ... Extremes'."
"You did not see whole film?"
"I saw all three episodes."
"But there is a whole feature film named 'Dumplings!' I won the Golden Horse for it! That is Chinese Oscar! You only saw excerpt! Whole film has lovemaking scene so passionate, so powerful!"
Funny. I am already thinking so passionate, so powerful. Bai Ling was born in China and is now a famous star who appears mostly in American movies. She likes costumes for which nudity would not represent much of a compromise. Right now she is wearing an elegant Louis Vuitton gown that must have required half the spare change in Paris and hardly any of the fabric. We are standing in the Louis Vuitton store at the Ala Moana shopping mall in Honolulu, at a party for the Louis Vuitton Hawaii International Film Festival, which used to be called the Hawaii International Film Festival, so now you know why their party is at the Louis Vuitton store.
I have seen Bai Ling many times in the movies, often billed as Ling Bai. In China the practice is to put the family name first and the given name second. So properly she should be referred to as Ling Bai, right?
"Your theory is correct, but you have one thing wrong," I am told by Liwei Kiumra, the China expert of the Hawaii festival. "Ling is her first name."
Therefore, Bai Ling. Everyone who has it wrong has it right. I have never met her before. I'm sure I would have remembered if I had. She starts gabbing away like we're old friends, and I want to catch up on what's been happening since our last sleepover.
"I am on reality TV! New VH1 show! Named 'But Can They Sing?' Celebrity super pop stars, can they sing? They give you four days to learn song. Models, actors, can you sing? I am on with Joey Pants, Larry Holmes, Morgan Fairchild and Carmine Gotti. I tell them, have no trouble with Sinatra. 'The Way You Look Tonight,' no problem! You know what they want me to sing? 'Like a Virgin!' My God! Not my style! Show plays Oct. 30, at  p.m." She makes sure I write that down. "Be sure to watch! You have to vote for me! Can vote by phone, Internet, every way."
OK, so that's a plug. But she has already turned the plug into the parody of a plug, and now she hurtles ahead: "One day, I am begging them Sinatra, Sinatra, and they say can I sing old American song, 'McDonald Has Farm.' My God! I never heard of it. They teach me. I like the pig part. Oink oink here!"
She laughs so cheerfully it is all I can do to watch the oinking and not what happens to her dress when she oinks.
Bai Ling has had an incredible life. I learn from IMDb.com that she was born in China in 1970, and at the age of 14 enlisted in the Chinese People's Liberation Army and joined a troupe entertaining the soldiers in Tibet. Back in Beijing, she was active in theater, until she joined the anti-government demonstrations at Tiananmen Square. That did nothing for her showbiz career. She immigrated to the United States two years later. Her 30 credits include "The Crow," "The Breed" and "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." She was even the Chinese interpreter in Oliver Stone's "Nixon." She had top billing recently in "The Beautiful Country" (opposite Nick Nolte), Spike Lee's "She Hate Me," and Stuart Gordon's forthcoming "Edmond," written by David Mamet, where she plays a temptress who misleads a fed-up husband played by William H. Macy.
After making "Red Corner" (1997), where she played Richard Gere's defense attorney in a movie critical of the Chinese legal system, she found trouble getting work in her homeland -- although "Dumplings" and "Three ... Extremes," were made in Hong Kong. "Three ..." is a sampling of the Extreme Asia cinema; the term describes films that do not merely push outside the envelope but rip it to shreds and stomp on it.
There are two versions of the dumpling film because the director, Fruit Chan, made a 91-minute version and then cut it down to 40 minutes to be part of an Extreme Asia horror film trilogy also including Park Chan-Wook's "Cut," from Korea, and Takashi Miike's "Box," from Japan. "Three ... Extremes" opens Friday in Chicago. It makes American slasher movies look like they're about can openers.
The character played by Bai Ling is a big departure from her usual glamorous and exotic roles. This time she plays a cook famous for her dumplings, and who always seems to have a little flour on her dress. Her dumplings are famous not because of how good they taste, but because rich, aging actresses believe they make them look younger. It's all in the recipe. What she puts into the dumplings I choose not to reveal at this point, because you may be at breakfast, but let's say the story follows in the Extreme Asia tradition of transgressive and depraved behavior.
If you are thinking of waiting for the full-length version of "Dumplings," I recommend seeing "Three ... Extremes" first, both because all three films are so effective, and because, frankly, you may not be able to take any more.
"Can I see the full-length version here at the festival?" I asked.
"Yes! Is playing here!"
"Great!" I said. "When?"
"Saturday at midnight," says Chuck Boller, director of the festival.
"Midnight?" I say. "We just got off the plane from Chicago. I'll sleep right through the midnight screening. That's 5 a.m. in Chicago."
"Maybe take a nap between 7 and 10, be fresh," Bai Ling suggests.
"Why only at midnight?" I ask Boller.
"Well ... you've seen the 40- minute version?"
I nod. We both nod.
"I make all dumplings myself!" Bai Ling told me. "All the time in that little kitchen. I was so pale, they asked me, what was my makeup? No makeup! Dying of heat! I am chopping away all the time, blood everywhere! Terrible smell. Much better in long version. There is a lovemaking scene in longer version that is amazing. Goes on forever. Wilder and wilder. Not, you know, too bad, just wild."
Her dumpling cook is a smiling and high-spirited creature who may live in a tenement but treats it like a palace. She is upbeat and supportive for her clients, who need a lot of support, but the film's horror involves what she does while she smiles.
"She's like a spirit, so bold, so innocent, so wise," Bai Ling tells me. "She is provocative, sexy, a free spirit, I think she is a Zen master. She is offering something to actress afraid of losing her looks. Myself, I will never have plastic surgery. When you do that, you start to lose yourself."
Bai Ling, now 35, has not started to lose herself. In the movie, she asks her client, "How old do I look to you?" The actress guesses about 30. As I wrote in my review, "I would have guessed even younger."
"For me, every day is a new day," Bai Ling tells me. "No thinking about growing old. We as individuals are perfect sculptures."
Speak for yourself, Bai Ling.
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