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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Shamo (Blu-ray)
Shamo (Blu-ray)
Tai Seng // Unrated // May 26, 2009 // Region A
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 6, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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At a
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glance, at least, you'd think a son like Ryo (Shawn Yu) would have his parents beaming with joy. Their meek teenager is an exceptional student, a virtuoso on the violin, and, as it turns out, a murderer. With seemingly no provocation at all, Ryo snaps one morning, slaughtering his parents in cold blood and leaving his younger sister an orphan. Even among the seasoned criminals with whom he's imprisoned, Ryo is a pariah, and though being a minor in the eyes of the law means his sentence will be short, those couple of years are unflinchingly brutal. He's raped and savagely beaten, and that debasement is encouraged by a warden hellbent on preventing Ryo from once again clawing his way to the world outside his walls. Ryo is so thoroughly shamed that he has no intention of being released, but as he flings his head down on a shattered urinal to end his suffering, a karate master (Francis Ng) intervenes. Even as Ryo is bound and gagged in solitary confinement, Kenji Kurokawa continues to hone his new student's skills, shaping a gangly teenager into an instrument of death who will never again be subjected to that sort of humiliation.

When released, Ryo doesn't seek revenge or carve a path of destruction through the East. No, he slinks away in the background as a gigolo, grabbing fistfuls of cash from bloated, middle-aged women in search of a thrill. It's the sight of the mixed martial arts of the Lethal Fight tournament that offers Ryo a glimmer of something else entirely. While taking a stab at tracking down his younger sister -- who's since sold herself into prostitution -- Ryo winds up with a shot at squaring off in Lethal Fight, spurred on by a promoter who can't shrug off the draw of an infamous murderer on the bill. Ryo is a feral animal, though, and even the frenzied attacks that bring him victory are too often seen as shameful losses. Despite being spurred on by his hooker lover, doggedly loyal best friend, and former master, Ryo finds himself ensnared in an impossible conflict; he refuses to yield to defeat but is too self-destructive to properly train, and this dark path threatens to consume not just himself but everyone he once held dear.

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starts off well enough. The first act of this adaptation of Izo Hashimoto and Akio Tanaka's manga is fairly routine, as far as the story goes, but for a movie about a unimposing, embattled young man who's steeled into a hardened warrior by his mentor, it's enormously effective. Its opening stretch is sopping with blood, agonizingly brutal, and astonishingly stylish, and even if the broad strokes of its plot don't look to be anything out of the ordinary, Shamo's premise and characterizations are all still coherent enough. The movie's adapted from a long-running manga, though, and perhaps the reason it languished in post-production hell for a full year is that Shamo never really figures out where to go once Ryo's released from prison. Out of all of the key characters, the only ones motivated by any tattered shred of logic are the fight promoter played by Bruceploitation mainstay Bruce Leung -- someone who takes a look a despised murderer and sees nothing but box office receipts -- and a brawler who's duped into a fight when he thinks that Ryo has raped his girlfriend. Nothing anyone else says or does for the better part of an hour and a half makes any sense whatsoever.

Plot points that seem like they're going to be integral are introduced and quickly ignored, such as a long, rambling setup for a steroid injection that threatens to ravage Ryo's mind and body, but the only perceptible effect it has on someone who's off the rails anyway is turning one eye red. The fight sequences are impressive enough, but they're separated by long, painful stretches of nothing, and the later brawls often don't live up to the intensity of the attacks in prison. Ryo by design is a repulsive character, and there's not much of a redemption arc for him either. The violence isn't psychotic enough to propel the movie on its own, and there's not much of a hook with its characters or scattershot storytelling either. The real star of Shamo is director Pou-Soi Cheang (Dog Bites Dog) and his dazzling visual eye. His hyperstylized visuals favor extreme, exaggerated angles and compositions that skew towards negative space. If anything close to that care and consideration had been lavished on Shamo's screenplay, this would've been an incredible movie, but instead, it's a case of empty, meaningless style over substance. Rent It.

Shamo looks surprisingly uneven in high definition. Some scattered stretches are astonishingly impressive: silky smooth, startlingly detailed, and boasting an almost tactile sense of depth and dimensionality. The 1.85:1 image tends to be softer than I'd expect for such a recent production, though, and it's also unusually dusty and speckled. Clarity and detail generally rank at least as fine, however, and the high-def image is reinforced by robust black levels and a stylized palette. Shamo at its best does look incredible, but it lacks the consistency and polish I've come to expect on Blu-ray.

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Shamo features a pair of lossless, 7.1 soundtracks in its original Cantonese: one DTS-HD Master Audio track and another in Dolby TrueHD. Although the TrueHD track is encoded at a lower bitrate than its DTS counterpart, I couldn't spot any meaningful difference toggling back and forth between the two. Shamo is a movie bolstered by a colossal sound -- the meaty thuds of its flurries of punches and kicks, a foundation-rattling low-end, and a thundering score -- and that sonic fury is rendered flawlessly on this Blu-ray disc. Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also offered in English and Mandarin, and a stereo dub in Vietnamese has been included as well. The disc does, of course, feature English subtitles -- although they're not enabled by default -- and Shamo also includes two Chinese subtitle streams (traditional and simplified).

  • Audio Commentaries: Shamo belts
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    out two very different commentary tracks, neither of which feature anyone directly involved with the production of the film. The first is with Mark, Grady, and Daniel from Subway Cinema, the minds behind the New York Asian Film Festival. Though the early stretches come across like a Talking IMDb -- the three of 'em spend an awful lot of time rattling off filmographies and random bits of background info on the cast -- I like it well enough overall. It's a pretty snarky track, at one point describing Shamo as "Million Dollar Baby meets Karate Kid III", and they get sick enough of talking about this movie that they get derailed into chatting about Hitler-themed restaurants and bars the world over and John Carpenter's commentary tracks. The Subway Cinema crew mostly seems to be there to help put Shamo in context, speaking about the state of Hong Kong cinema today, comparing it to the original manga, and touching on why they booked a movie they admittedly don't think that much of for their film festival. The smart money says most people would have a hard time trudging through this commentary, but it's the personality this track has that make it worth a listen to me.

    The other commentary -- featuring martial arts film historian Ric Meyers, writer Jeff Rovin, and Tai Seng's Frank Djeng -- takes a much more serious bent. It's a more scholarly and intensely analytical discussion. They don't gloss over Shamo's more illogical stretches either, but the three of them are more forgiving, even likening the movie to film noir, A Clockwork Orange, and Ben Hur (!). They delve far more in-depth in their comparisons to the original manga, debate some of the fundamental changes made by the filmmakers, and analyze Shamo's use of martial arts.

    These are two unrecognizably different commentary tracks, and I'm glad Tai Seng saw fit to include both of them. I can't help but wonder how it would've played if all six speakers had been in the room at once debating the merits of the film, though. For anyone interested enough to give either of them a listen, these two commentaries are hidden under the "Setup" menu rather than listed with the rest of the extras.

  • Making-Of (3 min.; SD): These very short snippets of behind-the-scenes footage look to have been shot on a 23 year old camcorder.

  • Interview (31 min.; SD): Despite the way it's labeled in the menus, this half-hour featurette is more of a making-of piece than anything else. For one, an enormous amount of candid footage from the shoot is scattered around in here. Though most of the rest of the cast is briefly interviewed as well, the emphasis is squarely on Shawn Yu, and even his co-stars generally don't stray from speaking about working alongside him. Among the topics tackled here are the atmosphere of the set, preparing for such a challenging role, the grueling shoot itself, and their impressions of director Pou-Soi Cheang.

  • Photo Gallery (2 min.; HD): The production stills in this montage are served up at a high resolution, although most of the screen is devoured by the framing of a shattered wall, and the photos themselves have been roughed up to look more extreme.

  • Trailer (2 min.; SD): Rounding out the extras is a standard-def theatrical trailer.
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The Final Word
As a trashy, brutal midnight movie, Shamo would be worth a spin, but this awkward manga adaptation settles into hollow, empty style and borderline-complete-incoherence the instant that the meat of the flick gets underway. Rent It.
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