Shamo (2007)

Directed by: Soi Cheang
Written by: Izô Hashimoto & Szeto Kam-Yuen
Producers: Junichi Matsushita, Yoneyama Shin & Sam Leong
Starring: Shawn Yue, Francis Ng, Annie Liu, Ryo Ishibashi, Dylan Kuo, Pei Pei-Wing, Masato & Bruce Leung

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Nominations at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2007:
Best Adapted Screenplay (Izô Hashimoto & Szeto Kam-Yuen)
Best Cinematography (Edmond Fung)
Best Action Choreography (Jack Wong)

Based on the Japanese action manga authored by Izô Hashimoto (1*), the dark comic strip Shamo (literally translated from Japanese as "Gamecock") drew from dark, real life incidents such as the Kobe Children's Serial Murder of 1997 and the main character Ryu Narushima was modeled after images connected to juvenile delinquency but also the martial art of Kyokushin kaikan. So this combo of dark and martial arts obviously means Hong Kong cinema and specifically the hyped (rightly) Soi Cheang can get involved in some shape or form. And it's expectedly Art Port and Same Way, the production companies behind Dog Bite Dog (Soi Cheang) and Explosive City (Sam Leong) that take charge. Reading the general synopsis of the manga, director Cheang's dark and visual senses are seemingly very fitting for the material and the question does arise (aside from the is it a good film-one), how much will and can Cheang bring from comic to screen, within a Cat IIb rating? Structurally one can see where he was aiming but it ultimately divides the film in thirds. Two of them are vicious, literally hard hitting but merely a non-engaging summary of what can be read on Wikipedia anyway while the last is quite close to a demo reel for Cheang as he invites us into a downbeat explanation of violation, righteousness and these consequences wanting to turn good characters onto the road to nowhere. Want and will, that is a key and why Shamo frustrates and eventually wins its battles.

Cheang does a Halloween-esque (not style) opening where there's no logical explanation of the sudden murderous burst of violence Ryu Narushima (Shawn Yue) inflicts on his parents. Being under the age of 18 and therefore protected by Juvenile Law, he does get a prison sentence but it only lasts 2 years. During this time he's raped, abused by the sadistic warden (Ryo Ishibashi) and taught karate by no nonsense, hard assed master Kenji Kurokawa (Francis Ng). When Ryu is out, he begins searching for his lost sister (Pei-Pei Wing - Dog Bite Dog) but is also drawn to the status the Lethal Fight boxing matches promises. All while his sidekicks and only friends, among others an equally lost prostitute played well by Annie Liu (Exodus), stands by his side...

To answer a question, there's no true need for a Category III rating despite the story content as Cheang is content and confident with treating his violence head on without the aid of over the top gore OR he's merely giving us glimpses of aftermaths. Which is especially true of the opening murder which will be shown in more clear glimpses as the movie rolls on. Otherwise, it's non-subtle imagery of animals, creeping closer and closer to Ryu's animalistic being that sets us on his track as well. It's a sucky world to the max, where selfishness rules so does the introduction of the mysterious Francis Ng sifu tell us that someone will bring light to Ryu's life? It's a mystery I'm glad is there when knowing the full picture but as the assault start, with numerous beatings, politically incorrect behaviour and an unsympathetic child of a character, Shamo plays out without much dedication towards anything else but the story-beats in need to be ticked off. And a 100+ minute running time doesn't signal good things either.

Ironically enough, it's the lesser of the problems staying put for that long and there's certainly positives to be had in between the little engagement. Jack Long's action choreography mixes shaky, tightly shot little brawls but a fair amount of clear looking ones that despite a repetitive sound design, elevates the movie. Especially the boxing scenes set at the Lethal Fight arena have teeth, clarity and memorable brutality that eventually interacts with the storytelling skills of Soi Cheang too. He takes Shawn Yue's Ryu onto a downwards spiral seemingly where either the character is unknowing of what his act has done to his fate in society or he's accepted the hatred towards him. Acceptance is never thought of as something you can achieve, hence Ryu going all out to appear on the winning side, including taking steroids and fooling his ultimate opponent that he's raped his wife. But emotional confrontations shows not all is dead inside Ryu and I'm happy to report that the central story of him looking for his sister really turns Shamo during the last 20-30 minutes into something worthwhile.

Here we're challenged to re-think the pessimism of the world and witness a possible stab at individuality, a stab at claiming the right to breathe and this combo of a tuned visual sense of Cheang, Jack Long's effective boxing choreography and Shawn Yue never veering from any of the rigors his character needs to be put through, makes Shamo take on a watchable nature eventually. Structurally perhaps there should've been made efforts to lure us in emotionally earlier but I kind of feel the experience is worthwhile, if not entirely successful as an adaptation. Without the last 20-30 minutes, Wikipedia will help you enough in understanding the plight of Ryu Narushima. Without Soi Cheang, we wouldn't have been affected by it late in the game.

The DVD:

Universe presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, with anamorphic enhancement. Transfer is clean, sufficiently sharp and colourful.

Audio options are Cantonese (with sections in Mandarin and English) Dolby Digital 5.1 and Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 but as I'm not equipped with such a system, my assessment of this disc aspect will be left off this review.

The English subtitles are fully coherent throughout with the only flaw being that they don't always follow verbatim the English dialogue. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included. Extras are limited to a short (3 minutes, 20 seconds) but English subtitled Making Of, a 20 page Photo Gallery with your standard movie stills and the trailer.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson


(1) Co-writer, co-producer and contributed to the screenplay for Katsuhiro Ôtomo's classic Akira in 1988. Izo also has dabbled in directing, among other things Evil Dead Trap 2 and this isn't his first Hong Kong/Japan connection as he was part of the writing team on Nam Nai-Choi's The Peacock King in 1989.