I don’t know how to feel about a movie like Shamo. Soi Cheang’s previous movie, the brutal, bizarre Dog Bites Dog, in no way indicates how deeply strange and silly his brand of nihilism could sink. And, to be fair, Cheang likely gets weighed down by his source material; Japanese manga has few rivals for bitter juvenile nihilism, its fiercest competitor being Japanese video games of the mid-to-late nineties. By all accounts, Izo Hashimoto’s manga makes no sense while dealing with rote themes of existential angst, guilt and violence. Its plot makes no sense when judged by the commonly accepted rules of storytelling, by the standards of verisimilitude, or, from what I hear, other manga in the same genre.
The film starts with the arrest of Ryo Narushima (Shawn Yue), who, apparently without trial, begins serving time in prison for the murder of his parents. The other prisoners physically and sexually assault him. The warden torments him, taunts him, assuring that even though his sentence is only for two years (Ryo is a minor and was sentenced as such) he will never live down his crime. His baby sister visits the prison to tell him that his aunts and uncles have seized all of the family property, leaving her nothing, and that she plans to move to a city to find work as a hooker. Ryo understandably tries to commit suicide, although less than understandably attempts to do so by ramming his head into a broken urinal. Before he can fatally smash his head into the jagged broken porcelain, a pebble thrown by new inmate and prison yard karate instructor Kenji Kurokawa (Francis Ng) breaks the apparently deadly rough edge of the damaged toilet. Kurokawa, jailed for assassinating Japan’s prime minister while working with Yukio Mishima’s Tatenokai, wants to teach Ryo how to fight.
If all this sounds utterly insane, it might interest (or annoy) the reader to know that this is just the set-up. The aimless narrative matches characters drawn in short-hand, characters that come in and out of the story as the plot necessitates. Character motivations are not so much opaque as fuliginous. They aren’t just hidden from the audience; the characters seem even less aware of why they’re doing what they do. The film boasts several unresolved sub-plots, each as underdeveloped as the main narrative, and the dialog often veers towards the expository yet somehow manages to obfuscate both characters and narrative.
It sounds like a mess – it is – but I can’t help loving it. One of Hong Kong’s most peculiar genre’s is called “mo lei tau,” which literally means something along the lines of “makes no sense.” It’s a sub-division of comedy best exemplified by Stephen Chow and various light-weight Lunar New Year films that feature huge casts comprised of TVB stars. But I think that movies like Shamo need a designation of their own along the same lines. Shamo is a Hong Kong comic adaptation, but it’s also one in a long line of tournament themed martial arts films. It has a lot in common with the b-movies made before the hand-over, when HK movies were still cult territory in the west, viable oddities for an audience of die-hards in their native country. Its lunatic energy makes less sense than anything by Stephen Chow. Shawn Yue was, at the time of its making, a teeny-bopper heartthrob, but he plays the sort of role that Alexander Lo Rei or Terry Fan Siu-Wong might have essayed for Lam Nai-Choi in the early nineties. And that’s kind of great.
Shamo is a bad movie, but it’s no less watchable than other films of similar origins and ambitions, whether violent tournament films like Young Kickboxer or manga adaptations like Riki-Oh. The aesthetics are new, with the wacky costuming (I want Ryo’s hoodie, the one silk-screened with portraits of everyone from Eckin Chang to Charles Barkley, though I would never, ever wear it in public) and hair-styles, but the movie is of a kindred spirit as those which only the die-hard fans used to watch and enjoy.
So take this for what it’s worth, Hong Kong exploitation fans: Shamo earned my good will. Forget about narrative structure; this is lunatic film making that will alienate most sensible people after the first rape scene. But the combination of a hilarious performance from Francis Ng, nonsensical characterization and the relentless violence and pessimism make for the sort of weird, transgressive movie that helped make Hong Kong cinema so appealing to those of us who don’t mind forgoing what could be charitably described as quality storytelling for purely mind-bending film making. Soi Cheang can do better, and has, and will. But I ache for movies like Shamo as much as I ache for classically styled kung-fu and wuxia flicks, cast-of-thousands historicals, and ineffably strange fantasies. We’ve gotten quite a lot of the latter, what with all of these wing chun themed movies in the wake of Wilson Yip’s Ip Man and John Woo’s Red Cliff and Gordon Chan’s Painted Skin. I’m thankful that Shamo provides some contemporary representation for the sort of movie that leaves me feeling healthfully guilty over what I just watched. All that sank must, hopefully, converge; everything old ought to be new again.