Revenge is often a dish best eaten cold. Just ask Fruit Chan, director of Dumplings (2004), originally conceived as one chapter of a three-part horror omnibus (Three… Extremes) before he served up more of the same dark satire, just in larger portions, making the bloated feature-length even harder to swallow. Tiwa Moeithaisong’s ‘Meat Grinder’ follows a similar recipe, and now ominously appears on our menus for the first time.
A young man, searching for his fiancé Aoi in 1970’s Thailand, confronts her employee Buss (Mai Charoenpura), a troubled woman haunted by memories of her horrific upbringing. Pushing Buss too far, he is brutally dealt with, tacked to a wooden floor by his fingernails, left to marinade for the foreseeable future. Whilst he bravely tries to escape, a riot on the streets outside her home offers Buss a unique business opportunity – the lifeless body of a man dumped in her noodle-cart the missing ingredient to her new business venture; her very own noodle shop, just like the one her mother once owned.
Using her old lady’s unconventional recipes and techniques (grinding human flesh to make the perfect meat) her noodle dishes are an instant success. The restaurant quickly becomes one of the hottest eateries in town, introducing Buss to Attapon, a young man who offers her the warmth she’s always craved. But when his desire to seek out his missing friend gives rise to a grim discovery, Buss’s past catches up with her again; love and happiness replaced on the specials board with bloody retribution…
Horror films have always been full of nasty, uncongenial imagery - a lot of the most foul, unrepentant violence aimed at women. While American studios continue with this trend, bombarding us with torture porn, copying the success of the Hostel and Saw series’ with pale franchises, world cinema has responded with much more meatier offerings, quite literally.
In the striking opening sequence to Meat Grinder we watch the grainy footage of a victim being dispactched, chopped and prepared in gloriously sadistic detail. Five minutes in, a young man searching for his fiance has his leg hacked off before being nailed to the floor in gruesome, look away now, close-up. Director Tiwa Moeithaisong certainly knows how to get right down to business, leaving the viewer in no doubt as to where this one is heading.
Or perhaps not, because while the film is genuinely stomach churning throughout (Buss’s landlord and his flunkeys foolishly demanding unpaid rent the highlight), Moeithaisong has managed to sidestep the torture-porn tag by infusing the blood and gore with an engaging story, intertwined by a clever plot structure that enables to hold the viewer’s interest.
Flashbacks aren’t just used to explain Buss’s harrowing past. By skipping several scenes before retelling them out of sequence, suspense is created by disorientating the audience but never baffling them. This is largely down to the striking visuals, jumping from colour to monochrome and then back again, edited seamlessly so that the viewer never loses their bearings. The only criticism with the constant use of flashbacks is that by the final act you could be left completely drained by the countless atrocities Buss has had to endure since childhood.
Complete with atmospheric visuals (Buss’s world is more blue than Pandora) and a soundtrack that switches from romantic love songs to very uncomfortable haunting melodies (the opening score cannot be bettered), Meat Grinder is surprisingly crafted with an extreme amount of care; its love montage halfway through dares to include such deliberate audience provocations as blood and mutilation mixed with kinky nudity and loving massages. Yet it works, and is one of the most memorable scenes, revealing a twist that, although much too familiar these days, packs a timely emotional punch.
Mai Charoenpura handles her role superbly with a brooding menace; she’s at her most interesting before the slightly disappointing and ever so predictable finale (the repetitive giggling of Buss’s inner thoughts also begin to grate). Then there’s the character Nid, a neighbour’s daughter who foolishly begins a relationship with Attapon not long after his break-up with Buss. Despite little screen-time, she somehow fashions more than enough empathy in time for the final act. Maybe it’s because she is easy on the eye or because Buss is a complete fruitcake, but it cleverly moves the story on to the next level just as you start to wonder quite where this film has left to go.
Admittedly there’s a ring of familiarity about almost everything on offer here, and how Buss manages to keep the place a secret from the police is a question oddly left unanswered, but it never ends up coming off as torture porn for lazy horror junkies. Instead, it manages to grip from its first shot, continuing with a succession of gory, sometimes suspenseful, shock-scare scenes, emotional punch, and some fine performances from the mostly revered characters.
Relying more on mood rather than over the top visuals, this is a return to the intelligent side of exploitation horror. Refreshingly marinated with an intriguing story to give it flavour, and coupled with lashings and lashings of gory mayhem, Meat Grinder is an absolute treat from start to finish. DW