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NYAFF 2008: "Shamo" (Cheang Pou-soi, HK)

A review of Cheang Pou-soi's film _Shamo_.
Daniel Kasman
Above: Shawn Yue, giving the best Kubrick Stare since Eyes Wide Shut.
The Kubrick Stare: that look, ranging from Sterling Hayden in Dr. Strangelove all the way to Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, forehead tilted down, eyes turned up into the skull—a piercing gaze of the insane, those quashed by a system and unhinged to such a degree to turn their furious rebellion outwards. Believe it or not, Chinese genre director Cheang Pou-soi has miraculously dedicated an entire movie to the Kubrick Stare, with an unbridled, truly brilliant lead performance of desperation by Shawn Yue. Imprisoned as a youth for the murder of his parents, trained in karate in the hoosegow, turned loose on a disdainful society to be first a gigolo and then a contemptible blood fighter; beaten and raped in jail, scorned in society, finding his now parentless sister turned prostitute, hated by even the official crypto-pit fighting league—it is no wonder Yue saves his Kubrick Stare not for a final denouement or moment of insanity, but rather screws up his face from minute one, hating all and seeing threats and insults everywhere.
What is left, then, but to lash out? Cheang crafts another brutal winner based entirely on survival, desperate, humanity-forsaking survival. What seems at first a fight movie—with Yue being trained by a disgruntled karate master played by Francis Ng—and a fight narrative—Yue wants to beat the reigning fighting champion to achieve some measure of dignity after his criminal past—is nothing of the kind. Never has a fighter been trained so poorly, listened with such a deaf ear to an instructor, been beaten so thoroughly again and again inside the ring and out. No—Yue is not fighting to win, he is fighting back to stay alive. Unlike the institutional and even social oppression that plague Cheang characters in Dog Bite Dog and Love Battlefield, Yue has next to no psychology. Ominous shots of cicadas and ravens overlooking the fate of the poor boy are not for nothing: this is a film that is animalistic above all else, with man as the most animal of all. Yue truly is a beast lashing out at all perceived threats. Knocked down again and again, tread on and treated as nothing but the animal he probably is (or is turned into, as the film's finale hints at), Yue becomes hate-filled and irrepressibly violent. Shamo is stripped almost entirely of the thing that make goal-oriented cinema so driving: psychological desires. Cheang takes us back a step, to a primal level of desire, instinctual, bodily desire, a place few truly desire to take the cinema.
But enabled by the adventurous, hard-edged stylization by photographer Fung Yuen Man and the film's remarkable, empathetic score, Shamo wins our allegiance by its dedication. If a man's spiritual wherewithal is signaled in his bodily endurance, the film's spirit is likewise expressed in its foremost determination to stick by the side of such a terrible person in such a terrible position, and stick by him until, through the insanity of sheer beast-like perseverance, he wins our respect and admiration.


Soi Cheang

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