When filmmakers who already possess morbid, vibrant mentalities discover the topic of food obsession, duck. Audiences are likely to be splattered with all manner of deeply personal opinions about the human condition. Trouble is, our most neurotic talents in contemporary cinema know that a ritual so intimate as eating is the natural successor to sex, which unfortunately was exhausted as a source of titillation after Last Tango in Paris. This means that we can be hooked by the subconscious and dragged helplessly into the maw of their more ambitious ponderings.
Juzo Itami executed a neat cinematic stunt in Tampopo (1987), which shook down the Italian spaghetti Western for all of the valuables it had picked from Akira Kurosawa; but the showdown was depicted in strictly culinary terms, as a brave Nobuko Miyamato toiled to concoct the perfect noodle in mouth-watering detail for our hungry eyes. Henry Jaglom's Eating (1991) offered that writer-director's typically smug female soul-baring session. Jaglom didn't exploit the neurotic relationships his women had with food, but he certainly fetishized them. And believe it or not, Ang Lee already had peaked before helming last year's wildly praised Jane Austen adaptation, Sense and Sensibility; his Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) shaved family politics to the bone, offering us lean but hearty slices of drama seen through the stubborn eyes of an elderly master chef.
Falling among them was the granddaddy of contemporary food films--unfortunately one you can't pick up at your local Blockbuster. Writer-director Todd Haynes never even put up his dukes when Richard Carpenter threatened legal action if the filmmaker didn't yank his acidic 45-minute short, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, off the festival circuit. Haynes didn't create an unauthorized biography of Carpenter so much as tell the sordid tale of her anorexia in surreal splendor. (He used Barbie dolls instead of actors.)
Korean director Chul-Soo Park submits his own recipe to the taste test, and stirs up few surprises but manages the most purely cinematic expression of eating disorders yet. Indeed, with his perversely entertaining psycho-thriller, 301 302, Chul harbors an agenda no more personal than to thrill you with blood, lingering breasts, and a clinical detachment unrivaled since David Cronenberg flashed those ferocious gynecological instruments in Dead Ringers.
It's appropriate to invoke that masterful chiller while discussing 301 302, because they both choreograph deeply buried anxieties to an ostensibly female rhythm. The plight of the corrupt twins in Dead Ringers wouldn't have felt so poignant if it weren't reflected in the ova-crippling deformity of Genevieve Bujold, their lover. Likewise, the schlocky popcorn psychoses bestowed on the two lead characters of 301 302 wouldn't come across with quite so much force if they hadn't been costumed in the guise of eating disorders.
The title of the film refers to the two single women who live right across the hall from each other. 301 (Eun-Jin Bang) whisks herself into this very modern apartment building in a blur of pots, pans, and hostile eagerness. She can't eat a meal, much less share one with somebody else, unless she has prepared it herself with elaborate effort. And if she accidentally makes too much, she's happy to swallow the excess. Having just left a five-year marriage that ended on unsavory terms, 301 itches to channel her prodigious cooking talents somewhere besides her chunky self.
Unfortunately, the person she sees most often is the frosty, bespectacled inhabitant of 302 (Sin-Hye Hwang), a magazine writer with a desperate ex harassing her via answering machine. 302 looks like Kate Moss compared to 301; moreover, she has internalized the same crazed need for food, but turned it against herself. She can't look at a full meal without getting nauseous, much less enjoy the frilly preparations 301 is always parading on a plate at her doorstep. The animosity that zaftig, emotional 301 feels for skinny, repressed 302 energizes the otherwise mundane transactions that constitute 301 302. Director Chul-Soo Park and cinematographer Eun-Gil Lee have created a slick smorgasbord of photogenic dishes, which become less appetizing as the histories of these two women are exposed. Predictably, they involve relationships with cruel or unresponsive men; director Chul-Soo, a veteran of 12 features and many more TV projects in Korea, already made a claim for feminist concerns with his groundbreaking Misty Pillar and several subsequent features. (That title could double as the name of a Russ Meyer heroine, but don't let that contaminate Chul-Soo's good intentions in your mind.)
Through flashbacks, we see that 302 collided in her adolescence with a randy stepfather whose taste for chicken turns out to be more homicidal than incestuous, in a sequence that makes the meat locker almost as repulsive as Peter Greenaway did in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover. The childhood of 301 isn't explored in the film, but her late-teens marriage to a neglectful executive is. A ravenous sexual partner as well as an ace cook, 301 is basically an adult-sized oral fixation on two legs. She drives her husband to shouting fits with her culinary overindulgences, yet somehow he's surprised when the angry undercurrent we've watched all along erupts in an unsavory act of rebellion that involves the family dog.
301 302 has more in common with those paranoid urban apartment thrillers than the character studies of Juzo, Jaglom, and Lee. Indeed, the film bears a mood strikingly similar to Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave, with its ultramodern surfaces gleaming like a knife blade under dim red and blue lights. While Boyle's nihilism invited you to laugh outright at the roommates and their self-willed metamorphosis into squabbling animals, there is a murky undercurrent of pathos running through the ultraviolent 301 302 that finds a sympathetic core in the obsessive-compulsive behavior. The most obvious interpretation is that 301 and 302 represent the two sides of a bulimic, the one who "rewards" herself with copious amounts of food and the other who punishes that indulgence by starving and vomiting herself into ghastly thinness.
Ultimately, Chul-Soo Park doesn't let any humanitarian message dilute the twisted good time that a thoughtful thriller like 301 302 offers in heaping spoonfuls. The Korean government already has declared the film its official entry for consideration in the Academy Awards' 1996 Best Foreign Film competition. It's hard to hold out much hope for 301 302 in a field where molasses-slow historical epics about cultural repression are the blue-ribbon bets. Chul-Soo probably would've needed to raise the feminist ante considerably to deflect Academy members' attention away from the cannibalism, rape, doggie-boiling, full-frontal upchucking, and other treats served up with balletic panache here. With or without Oscar's seal of approval, 301 302 is a stylish chiller destined for a place of honor in the international cult pantheon.
As part of its Independent Showcase, the USA Film Festival screens 301 302 September 16 at 7:30 p.m. at the AMC Glen Lakes Theatre, 9450 N. Central Expressway. Call 821-
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