Seventeen years after Jane's Addiction ushered in the blasé era with the pithy observation "Nothing's shocking," three Asian horror directors and one American comic are out to prove that oh, yes, something still is. The choice between over-the-top Grand Guignol and witheringly insensitive one-liners doesn't exactly make for the cuddliest New Year's viewing, but it does offer an illuminating glimpse of what 2006 might look like. If you're good and sick.
Three … Extremes, a trilogy of scare stories from the Far East, throws out every awful visual image and plot development it can think of to get a reaction. What's most shocking about the film, though, is the cynical way it uses that grotesquerie to peddle familiar narrative goods.
Fruit Chan's "Dumplings," in which a woman ingests discarded human fetuses to maintain her youthful glow, is at its heart an update of the succubus myth. The idea is strong enough to be carried by dramatic insinuation, but that's not going to get any online fanboys talking, so we're subjected to sickeningly unnecessary shots of chopped-up remains and to a bathtub abortion that's practically impossible to watch. It's best not to dwell on what the director might be saying about the culture of choice (that it's an extension of vanity seems the likeliest implication). He's merely exploiting adult fears to effect playground provocation.
Park Chanwook's "Cut" applies similar gross-out tactics to more recent source material. Its story of a successful film director tormented by a failed actor is a carbon copy of Saw same kidnapped hero, same unlucky innocent to be offed, same time limit, everything. The only room for one-upmanship is to have a character's fingers sliced off one by one and then ground up in a blender for extra-oogy emphasis. What we'd like is a more inventive plot, especially from the maker of the endlessly playful Oldboy.
Takashi Miike's concluding "Box," in contrast, stands out like a sore thumb in its subtle artistry. All the pinpoint sadism you'd expect from the maker of Audition goes unseen as a former circus performer is haunted by the ghost of her dead sister. This dreamlike elegy's forays into surrealism hit you in the brain instead of the stomach: A suggestive scene of a child's wooden doll being slowly twisted complete with gruesome grinding noise is more honestly unnerving than anything the other two segments can manage. And when Takashi Miike is the least offensive guy in the room, you really know you've stumbled onto Earth 2.
Pushing the envelope proves a far more productive activity in Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic, a concert film starring one of the only stand-ups working today who understands the liberating power of the indefensible thought. The movie is far from the best showcase for Silverman's talents, interrupting her stage routine with aimless skits and promising musical sequences that end up outstaying their welcome. But when those excesses are stripped away, Silverman stands revealed as one heck of an intellectual wrecking machine, whether she's enumerating the miracles of Jesus turning water into wine, making the Statue of Liberty disappear or identifying the time of life when it's best for a woman to give birth. (Answer: When you're a black teenager.) Some outraged idiots have confused Silverman's affected bigotry with espousal, and even some of her most vocal apologists appear to have missed the point of her act, writing that she's parodying the blithe self-centeredness of the Jewish-American Princess. That wouldn't be nearly as funny or deadly as the character she's really cultivating: a latte liberal so certain she's on "the right side" that she says one incredibly destructive thing after another. With stealthy assuredness, Jesus Is Magic makes a point that Three … Extremes arrives at only inadvertently: The best part of freedom is knowing when not to use it.
(Three … Extremes opens Friday, Dec. 30, at Enzian Theater; Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic opens Friday, Dec. 30, at Regal Winter Park Village Stadium 20)
SARAH SILVERMAN: JESUS IS MAGIC