Meat Grinder -- Film Review

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BUCHEON, South Korea -- Thanks to "Meat Grinder," Thai cinema now boasts its own Sweeney Todd in the form of a female psychopath who grinds her victims into meatballs for noodle soup. Tiwa Moeithaisong (who multi-tasks in direction, cinematography editing and lighting) joins the ranks of Hong Kong B-movie expert Herman Yau (whose "Bun Man: The Untold Story" is a prototype) in cooking up the kind of extreme cult Asian horror that has an intriguingly-told story, indelible protagonist and auteur style to burn.

For those who like their horror flicks raw and bloody, "Meat Grinder" is the steak tartar of the genre. For all its artsy production aesthetics and psychological insight, the film has faint hope of crossing over to the mainstream: A lot of the content is just stomach churning. So far, it has only sold to Taiwan and Hong Kong. Since its domestic release with cuts in March, "Meat Grinder" has yet to find an overseas distributor. No doubt, it will appear on the menu of some horror-themed festivals, and eventually turn up in ancillary markets.

After a grotesque prologue depicting a kitchen from hell, the protagonist Buss (Mai Charoenpura, demonstrating great emotional range) emerges from her dingy dive, to deal with the inquisitive fiance of her disappeared employee Aoi. Without further ado, the man is crucified to the carving table by his fingernails. As the story progresses, his Sisyphean escapades grimly result in more body parts being lopped off.

The bloodiness just escalates as more prey turn up, motivating Buss to expand her business from street-side noodle cart to a full-fledged restaurant business. Complications arise when she meets and falls for Attapon (Rattanaballang Tosawat) during a student riot. The gullible man takes a while to wonder why she stockpiles sedatives from his pharmacy.

The structure of "Meat Grinder" is complex, modulating between past and present, reality and fantasy in an enigmatic stream of consciousness. The dazzling alternations from color to monochrome intensify the sense of disorientation, thus establishing empathy both for the victims and the hallucinatory Buss. The plot is also strewn with dark twists, (especially one regarding "family recipes") that are meaty enough to be standalone films-within-films.

Sometimes the cinematography feels like a parody of the Philippine new wave -- conveying bleak realism in somber black-and-white. Other times, the colors are stingingly saturated. Mingled with mellow lighting and a swooning romantic score of Thai oldies, the images of mutilation and disembowelment, crosscut with Buss giving Attapon an arousing massage are uncannily imbued with the romantic sensuality of a Wong Kar Wai film.

As much as Buss' crimes repulse or titillate, the film prevents the audience from passing hasty judgment by elucidating her motives (often expedient or defensive) through a humanizing and arguably feminist perspective. Flashbacks reveal an abusive upbringing, her tender love for her daughter Bua (Tirachaya) and the highly unsympathetic nature of most victims -- from greasy, horny loan sharks to a cheating husband. By the end, it is hard to say which is more harrowing, her tragic life or the murders she compulsively commits.

The film's historical backdrop of military clampdown in the 70s, apart from being an allusion to current politics, transforms Buss' personal plight into a metaphor of how oppression brews discontent, and how discontent bubbles over into violent counter-action.

Venue: Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival
Production: Film Guru Company Ltd.
Cast: Mai Charoenpura, Rattanaballang Tosawat, Tirachaya, Somchai Sakdikul, Duangta Tungkamanee
Director-director of photography-editor: Tiwa Moeithaisong
Screenwriter: Samonggu
Producers: Thawatchai Phanpakdee, Poj Arnon
Executive producers: Thanapol, Vichai Thanarungroj
Production designer: Waragorn Poonsawat
Music: Giant Wave Co. Ltd.
Costume designer: Daranuch Sutthirak
Sales: Phranakorn Film Co Ltd.
No rating, 101 minutes
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