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Shamo     Shamo

(left) Shawn Yue takes on Masato, and (right) Annie Liu in Shamo.

Chinese: 軍雞  
Year: 2007  
Director: Soi Cheang Pou-Soi
Producer: Shin Yoneyama, Sam Leung Tak-Sum
Writer: Izo Hashimoto, Szeto Kam-Yuen
Action: Wong Wai-Leung
Cast: Shawn Yue, Francis Ng Chun-Yu, Dylan Guo, Masato, Annie Liu, Bruce Leung Siu-Lung, Ryo Ishibashi, Pei Pei, Terri Kwan Wing, Takuya Suzuki
The Skinny: More fun than it deserves to be. Shamo is not quality filmmaking, but it's so "special" that it can be entertaining - that is, if you haven't been put off by its icky content, illogical story, or just plain weirdness. A guilty pleasure.
by Kozo:

Soi Cheang's manga adaptation Shamo has been long-delayed, and hearsay claims that's because the movie is utter crap. That sounds plausible; a year-long post-production period is unusual for any Hong Kong film, and the movie's inability to get anything besides perfunctory festival play isn't a good sign either. After release, noted local reviewers have given the film a resounding thumbs down, and indeed, the film looks like it could be Dog Bite Dog meets Dick Tracy, with a dark tone, anime-inspired visuals and costumes and make-up that would look right at home at an over-produced Cantopop concert. The film is alienating too; it possesses an unearned narrative arc, and delivers absurd dialogue that's laughable instead of dramatic. The movie makes no sense, and lead character Ryo Narushima (Shawn Yue, in a game performance) is pathetic, disturbing, and not very likeable. Audiences who demand logic and redeeming qualities in their films will be put-off, and they have every right to be. However, if one chooses not to take the film seriously, and allows Soi Cheang's bizarre, creative vision to seep into their senses, then dirty, guilty entertainment can easily be had. Time to pick your side.

Based on the manga by Izo Hashimoto, Shamo tells the tale of juvenile delinquent Ryo Narushima (Shawn Yue), who's sentenced to a correctional institute after he snaps and murders his parents one fine spring morning. A thin, mousy boy, Ryo actually seems quite okay, but that doesn't matter to his new pals in the slammer. He's treated to some extreme physical affection in the men's room by his fellow inmates, turning him into a desperate, broken young man looking for an exit - even if it's self-induced. Help arrives in the form of Kenji Kurokawa (Francis Ng), a karate master who's assigned to instruct the inmates in the ways of extreme bodily harm. Teaching dangerous, sometimes deranged criminals to hone their bodies into lethal weapons? Yeah, that makes sense. Poor prison correctional policies aside, Kurokawa takes a heterosexual, mentor-type shine to the distressed Ryo, and begins to teach him the way of the fist in a stylish montage that shows off Shawn Yue's physique and Francis Ng's unparalleled ability to act intense, nonchalant, and self-amused all at the same time. Before you know it, Ryo can kick ass.

But since Ryo is a minor, he gets a free pass out of jail within a few years, and sets out to find his sister Natusmi (Pei Pei of Dog Bite Dog), who became a prostitute after Ryo was jailed, making him even more despondent. By the way, Ryo is now a blond-haired gigolo, servicing overweight women with his lean young frame, the sight of which could send squeamish audience members into fits of discomfort. Redemption - or self-serving gratification - arrives from Lethal Fight, a televised fighting competition featuring the ultra-skilled Naoto Sugawara (Masato) as its reigning champ. Something about Sugawara's popularity and hot girlfriend (Terri Kwan) makes Ryo all itchy, so he crashes the party to advance up the Lethal Fight ranks. It's either that, or Ryo is totally aimless, and desires to become champ because some existential hokum in the storyline requires that he conquer his detractors (people naturally hate him because he killed his parents), other martial artists, and himself in order to become the most kickass, temperamental, steroid-using extreme fighter around. Luckily, Kurokawa and his new prostitute girlfriend Megumi (Annie Liu) are around for moral support. But will this extended, roundabout storyline somehow lead Ryo to his sister and the inescapable, sure-to-be-arriving truth?

Well, this is a movie, so of course everything ties together. Does it tie together well? Not at all. Shamo is incredibly strange, possessing a narrative structure faithful to the original manga. However, since they have to compress 10+ volumes of manga into 100 minutes, the filmmakers deliver everything quickly, efficiently, and in an illogical and sometimes disconnected manner. The filmmakers apply their own garish stamp to the concept, turning a dark fighting manga into a strange, twisted, and mystifying comic book movie that defies logic. The details from the manga were outlandish, and presented in a hard-boiled, super-serious manner that would probably get ridiculed in any live-action adaptation. The filmmakers bring all those same elements to the film Shamo, but dress them up with even crazier production design and costumes, and finish things off with over-the-top performances that channel zero reality. The effect is that the movie becomes sensory overload, throwing despair, degradation, and dark comedy at the audience with gobs of style and absolutely no pity. After forty minutes of clichéd comic book platitudes, bizarre existential conceits, and borderline sickening content, it's not surprising that some audiences may be ready to run for the hills.

Honestly, those people aren't incorrect, especially if they're acting on their initial gut feelings. Shamo is not an accessible work, as it throws its postmodern, hyper-stylized comic book excess full-force at the audience, expecting that they'll either get it or not. If one doesn't get it, that's fine, because those opposed to Shamo's silliness or dark content will likely not become converts. There are some potent emotions and ideas hidden in the film, but there's also plenty that doesn't work, or comes off as simply laughable. The script delivers such zingers as "We're both the same: die hard," or "You tried to kill the Prime Minister! Society doesn't allow that!" with such deadpan seriousness that it would be entirely natural to bust a gut laughing. Francis Ng turns in an amusing performance, feeding Mr. Miyagi-style wisdom to Shawn Yue while drinking hard liquor and acting a tad too smug. There's also a mystifying scene where Kurokawa tells Ryo that he won't be able to kick ass until he learns to "split the moon." Ryo eventually does split the moon, but who the hell can really understand what it means? Add this silliness to the extreme costumes and settings, and you have the year's most bizarre motion picture.

Still, despite Shamo's excess, it really doesn't take itself seriously, which is a pretty much the film's ultimate strength. Sure, it's got an illogical story, melodramatic themes, and hackneyed drama, and when the filmmakers start to push these supposedly vital emotions, the film noticeably sags. But, Shamo also has the "hoodie of faces". Let's explain: midway through the film, after Ryo has been raped, learned kung-fu, become the boytoy of large women, and finally embarrassed in public with his pants around his ankles, he strides into the dojo of Ryuichi Yamasaki (Dylan Kuo) while wearing a hoodie adorned with headshots of various famous faces. Among them are Charles Barkley and - hold on second, is that Ekin Cheng? Yes, Shawn Yue is seen in Shamo sporting a hoodie with Chan Ho-Nam's mugshot silkscreened onto it. It's there, it's huge, and it's definitely Ekin Cheng. A large exclamation of "What the hell?" would be appropriate, followed by the obvious question of what the filmmakers were thinking when they decided to have Shawn Yue wear Ekin Cheng's head on his clothes. The answer is unknown, but that detail is enough to make it impossible to take Shamo seriously.

But hey, that's okay. Anyway, any film that has the chutzpah to put Ekin Cheng's face on a fashion accessory gets immediate points, as well as immediate inclusion in the Camp Film Hall of Fame. Buying into Shamo's excess can help the experience tremendously; if the audience can take that cue and let go of their need for quality, consistency, or logic, then Shamo can be an amusing guilty pleasure. The filmmakers help a lot; from minute one, they practically rub their extreme intentions in the audience's face. Not only do we have over-the-top visuals and concepts, but the characters and situations are so outlandish and distasteful that even pretending that we should be touched or affected by them is too much. Shamo is guilty entertainment because it's so trashy and silly, and the copious action and strange performances back up the fun factor. The bizarre cast helps too; besides Francis Ng as a kung-fu master, we get strange token appearances from Taiwanese stars Dylan Kuo and Terri Kwan, an odd turn from Kung Fu Hustle's Bruce Leung Siu-Lung, and an appearance from Japanese kickboxer Masato, who you may remember from the classic Lethal Ninja. Okay, maybe Lethal Ninja isn't a classic, and Shamo definitey isn't one either, but the words "camp classic" could easily apply one day. It would be a well-deserved description, and one makes Shamo a lot more fun than it has any right to be. (Kozo 2008)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Universe Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc

images courtesy of Sameway Productions Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen