At first glance, "Dog Bite Dog" seems disappointingly diffuse, strong visually but unfocused in terms of character, social context or plot.
At first glance, Soi Cheang’s flashy follow-up to his acclaimed nihilistic actioner “Dog Bite Dog” seems disappointingly diffuse, strong visually but unfocused in terms of character, social context or plot. Yet beyond narrative logic, “Shamo” consistently fascinates as its hero (Hong Kong heartthrob Shawn Yue), labeled from his teen years as an irredeemable parent-slaughterer, fights desperately to change his persona, getting savagely battered while passing through a variety of vividly realized film genres. Lacking the redeeming social value that could earn it offshore arthouse/fest respectability, “Shamo,” which opened in Asia earlier this year, may score as an ancillary guilty pleasure.
In disjointed long shots, from outside a house presided over by a cawing raven, the camera captures the aftermath of murder as a family sits at the dinner table. Widening pools of blood are the only indication that two people are dead. The action is next picked up by television coverage as 15-year-old Ryo (Yue), his school uniform drenched in blood, is led away in handcuffs, arraigned and sentenced.
Ryo (and the film) then pass through a succession of phases, each with appropriate if over-the-top lighting, editing and decor — from the brief opening horror segment to a violent prison movie to a kung fu training film, a sleazy sexploitation flick and an extreme boxing expose.
After the opening, the camera rejoins Ryo in jail, where he is beaten up and sodomized. The prison pic into which Ryo has been tossed changes gears upon the arrival of the resident karate master Kenji Kurokawa (Hong Kong action icon Francis Ng). Incarcerated for trying to off the prime minister, he takes Ryo under his wing, shifting “Shamo” into martial-arts training mode.
Ryo gamely battles the big-house bullies, getting as good as he gives. A visit from his spacey, lollipop-sucking sister Natsumi (Pei Pei), who announces her intention to become a whore since Ryo ruined her life, adds insult to injury.
“Shamo” assumes punk-noir coloration as sullen ex-con Ryo, now a bleached blond with a nasty ‘tude, works as a gigolo, trawling the underworld in search of sis, finding instead a like-named prostitute (Annie Liu). A bloody altercation, requiring an impressive number of thugs to take down Ryo, brings him to the attention of the Lethal Fight circuit where Ryo obsessively fixates on overthrowing the underground sport’s popular champ, Sugawara (Japanese kickboxer Masato).
A Hong Kong adaptation of a Japanese manga shot largely in Thailand, pic unfolds in discrete, luridly lit corners of hell, each appropriate to whatever type of film Ryo has wandered into. Soi structures his film as a string of competing scenarios, each with its own players vying for preeminence. Characters arrive, pose, dominate, are upstaged or thrown out of each other’s movies, Ryo remaining the pic’s putative star through sheer survivalism.
Indeed, sometimes two films unspool simultaneously — at the peak moment, when Ryo occupies the center ring, footage of his prior crime and arrest replay on the arena’s huge TV screen.
With its startling visuals and extreme subject matter, “Shamo” qualifies as a stellar entry in Hong Kong shingle Same Way Prods.’ wildly stylized, slam-bang lineup.