Director Pou-Soi Cheang’s follow up to his film ‘Dog Bites Dog’, easily one of the most unsettling and brutal movies I’ve ever seen, comes a somewhat similar, albeit much glossier tale in ‘Shamo’. But despite this films much slicker look and higher production values it doesn’t pack the same emotional upper cut to the gut that Cheang was able to deliver with ‘Dog Bites Dog’.
When we first meet Ryo Narushima (Shawn Yue) he is enjoying a quiet dinner with his parents and his baby sister. Next thing we know the parents are dead, little sister is in complete shock and Ryo, covered in blood, is led out of the house by the local authorities to begin his stay in prison. Being that Ryo is only sixteen and a minor he’ll be out of jail in couple of years regardless, but apparently I’m to believe by watching this movie there is no juvie lock up in Japan and kids are thrown in gen pop with the rest of the adult murders, thieves and rapist. Not that the warden (Ryo Ishibashi) of this little country club gives a damn about any of this as he has seemed to make it his personal mission that this parricide committing nut never makes it out of jail. While in prison Ryo is brutally raped repeatedly, beat up, smashed up and strung up and the sun hasn’t even set on his first evening in jail.
Enter Kenji Kuwokawa (Francis Ng), a renowned karate master and political assassin. For whatever reason he takes it upon himself to show Ryo the ways of the arts which the young man takes to his teaching like a baby to breasts milk. He’s not getting sand kicked in face or gang raped no more.
Fast forward five years and Ryo is living on the streets of Tokyo searching for his sister who he believes is working as a prostitute. To help meet his ends Ryo works
as a part time gigolo while constantly training in hopes of being a professional fight champion. To assist him in this most noble pursuit he has his best friend from prison Fujiyoshi (Chauy Ka Sing), his newly found girlfriend, club girl / whore Megumi (Anna Liu) and amazingly Kenji, his former teacher from prison. One would think that killing high ranking political figures would get you put away for longer than five years but there you go.
There’s a lot of stuff going on as Ryo continues to look for his sister, he becomes part of the biggest fight team in the country led by the scurrilous Mr. Mochizuki (Bruce Leung) with his ultimate hopes being to fight heavyweight champion Masato (Sugawara Naoto), a match that Ryo goes through some rather extreme measures to make happen. Eventually Ryo will get his shot. Think ‘Rocky’ only if Rocky was an asshole and you really didn’t want to see him win.
‘Shamo’ was a really different kind of movie, almost two separate films in one. The first act, at least in my opinion, was far more compelling following Ryo as a boy in prison and watching him gradually develop into someone learning to take care of himself. Teen idol Shawn Yue, similar to what disgraced teen idol Edison Chen was able to do in ‘Dog bites Dog’ completely dusts off that whole ‘teen idol’ gloss and delvers a very credible performance as the tough anti hero, Yue probably even had a tougher road to hoe than Chen because his character had a greater emotional range to traverse, at least early on. Also lifting this first act were fine performances from veterans Francis Ng and Ryo Ishibashi.
I suppose it’s when the ‘actual’ movie starts, this is Ryo’s life on the street and his attempts to be a mixed martial arts champ, that the movie becomes less interesting. The story becomes less involving as there was no bridge between Ryo the boy and Ryo the out of control gigoloing asshole. The film also had a mix of perplexing fantasy elements which didn’t seem to merge all that well with the overall gritty tone that had been set. The whole narrative overall was a scattershot affair that seemed to lack a central focus or theme.
The fight scenes were very well done and slickly shot and cleverly choreographed with Yue doing a more than passable job looking like he actually belonged in the ring with legitimate fighters in the movie such as Naoto. There was also a bit of twist to the narrative but unfortunately it really wasn’t much of one since Cheang didn’t do a terribly effective job in hiding his hand.
‘Shamo’ is a great looking film that had some really great moments and some nice performances from some very good actors but it was saddled with very erratic narrative that lacked the focus and the polish to support its stellar presentation.