The Building of the Self: Indictments of Femininity in Dumplings
I recently found out that Bai Ling is 48 years old. FORTY-EIGHT. Vampire, I tell you. Which makes it all the more fitting that she played a woman in her sixties that appears to be barely-30 in Dumplings, an offering from Fruit Chan. An expansion of a short film by the same name (in the anthology Three… Extremes), this one expands upon the original short to deliver a film about an aging actress looking for her fountain of youth. That Mrs. Li (Miriam Yeung) finds it in the form of eating dumplings made from aborted fetuses is squicky. However, it’s not the abortion piece or the hunt for youth and beauty that strikes me as the most intriguing aspect of this film. It’s not even the play with the color red that Chan employs. No, that honor belongs to the running theme of sheer hatred of motherhood and a need to own a male partner, which Chan expresses violently throughout the film.
|Do yourself a favor and don’t order Chinese food when you watch this (like I did).|
The most care that we see throughout the film is the attention that Mei (Bai Ling) lavishes upon making her dumplings. We see the slow motion of flour, the careful handling of dough, the expert chopping of the cabbage. She treats the fetuses as delicacies, and with good cause: as an effective beauty treatment, they bring her some serious coin. Mei voices that she won’t discard a dumpling (choosing to bury a dropped one in a plant rather than throw it away) because it has value. She demonstrates dedication to her profession by justifying a break up with an old boyfriend due to the fact that he found her profession as an abortionist unsavory – “I was only serving the people!” she tells a nurse. She’s happy to pass off the container used for the smuggling of fetuses as lunch for her kid, but at no point do we see Mei actually crave children in her life outside of being a beauty treatment. In fact, she seems to take pains against wanting children. She has a dog named Baby, but that’s about it. For Mei, it’s about freedom: when sharing that she married and divorced a cook, Mei tells Mrs. Li, “You may be rich, but I am free.” She is not tied down with marriage or children, and has the freedom to be as fabulous, youthful and beautiful as she pleases. Children are a burden to her when they are not a staple of her diet. However, her encounter with Mr. Li later on in the film contradicts her assertion that she’s in it for freedom – the moment that Mr. Li shows interest, she has no desire to help Mrs. Li regain her youth. In the end, it’s all about being pretty to snag a man.
|Hypocrisy, table for one…|
Mrs. Li, on the other hand, has no intention of freedom, struggling instead to regain her husband’s affections in order to feel value. In her backstory, Mrs. Li reveals that she was married at age 20 to her husband, and she knows damn well that her husband is sleeping with his young massage therapist; she also has known all along what Mei has been putting into the dumplings, as evident when the two women discuss the ingredients in Mei’s kitchen. In fact, we see Mrs. Li angrily stomp the life out of her husband’s duck eggs, going so far as to crush the life out of a chick mixed in with the group. She takes her rage out of these eggs as a way to express her frustration with the aging process. Mei, for her part, reassures Mrs. Li that in no time, she’ll be back to her young self and will have her husband again. When she does get him back, it’s after she eats the aborted child of incest and appears very young again. Even then, her goal is to have sex with her husband – in essence, she wants to horde her partner by being the prettiest and most desirable, and is willing to commit cannibalism in order to achieve her end. This calls into question Mrs. Li’s motives – she’s not in it for her, she’s in it for the validation she receives from her husband, which for her translates into sex. That’s a fairly shallow goal to satisfy with the measures she takes. Chan shows us that the need to remain top dog in her husband’s sex life has turned her into a baby-devouring monster.
Here’s some more food for thought (see what I did there?): in the short film, Mrs. Li, unable to get dumplings from Mei, self-aborts and eats her own child, proving the beauty far outweighed a child that she had wanted for years. In the film, this is replaced with her paying the massage therapist to abort her baby into the second trimester. This goes two-fold: in the short film, Mrs. Li placed her aesthetic desires above her maternal desires, and in the feature-length film, she and the massage therapist used the child as a bartering tool. The massage therapist, mind you, was able to be bribed to abort the baby; she went so far as to refer to the baby as a financial gain, as Mr. Li would have paid her either way to maintain it (though a girl would have brought in less compensation). This paints motherhood as something which can be bought and sold. Not exactly the best light for moms out there. For Chan’s women in this film, children is simply a commodity that can be sold to the highest bidder.
The most damning rail against motherhood and female responsibility in sexual relationships though, is the poor mother of the incest victim. Chastised by Mei that she allowed her daughter to become pregnant, the implication is that the incestuous father had nothing to do with the act of impregnating his daughter. The mother is the one that pleads for her daughter’s black market abortion, and the mother is the one that helps her daughter through the procedure. The mother is the one that cries as her child bleeds to death in the streets, begging for her daughter to live. Her guilt drives her to stab the girl’s father, and she proclaims that it’s all her fault. This completely overlooks the fact that a man impregnated his own child. For the mother, the fault is all hers – she let this happen, it’s her fault. Nevermind that her husband had his own free will. While it’s not explicitly stated that the girl was raped, it’s implied; if this is the case, then the girl did not have full agency of her own body. This makes it that much more horrifying, because in her silence, she was subjected to not only incest, but rape and forced abortion. In the end, this girl was done no favors. That Chan punished the girl for getting her abortion and delivered a guilt fest to her mother at every turn of the ordeal condemns the females rather than the males. Don’t believe me? Then realize this: in the end, the incestuous father is still alive. He’s not given the death penalty for his crimes against his daughter. He gets to live as a victim.
|This image by far was one of the most powerful for me.|
This is a lot to digest from the perspective of femininity. There’s a lot of rage in this one: against aging, against the need to stay young to retain a spouse as a kind of possession, against the parent that does not protect her child from incest and harm. That the cannibals are rewarded with beauty and youth while the young victim is dealt a painful death comes across as horribly unfair. “We can only treasure our time here and live the best lives we can,” Mei tells Mrs. Li one afternoon while preparing a batch of dumplings. Quite the message coming from a woman that makes her living serving up fetus pot pies. No, Chan is showing us a study in desperation: not so much of the retention of beauty, but in the struggle of the sexes: the struggle to remain desirable so that they’ll still be pleasing to men. This is how Chan’s women find value in themselves. In the final scenes, Mei is wandering as a poor server of dumplings in the streets, her fate unknown. We also see Mrs. Li caress her husband’s aborted fetus to the swell of music, her face and lips pale before she chops into it. Her quest for beauty hasn’t turned her into this; her quest to remain an ornamental trophy wife with exclusive sexual claim has. Whether this is cautionary tale or social commentary is up for debate.