Grabs you by the back of the neck and body slams you into the mud. Before you can catch your breath, your face is scraped along a broken concrete highway, leaving a long, bloody trail. All that’s left is for a speeding truck to crush your head like a grape.
Read my entire review at Twitch.
DOG BITE DOG assaults your senses and threatens to flat-line your emotions for most of its running time. The trip is so grueling you begin to feel your soul rip apart even as all empathetic feelings slowly depart. It’s suffused with so much gloom that you dread the next minute.
It’s actually almost a relief when the very talented director Soi Cheang guides it right off the rails, because it comes at a point when the accumulation of overwhelming despair might induce a few to consider self-immolation to stop the pain.
Beginning in the dark belly of a ship, we follow a feral fellow (Edison Chen) who makes his way to a restaurant for a pre-arranged meeting. If you’ve seen more than a few Hong Kong movies, you can anticipate that the haunted-looking young man is a hired killer brought in from overseas to execute someone and then make a hasty retreat.
That’s exactly what happens, but the filmmakers pull off the murder sequence and the subsequent scenes (detective squad arrives to investigate, one of them sees the suspect foolishly lingering nearby, the detectives try to capture the suspect with tragic results) with consummate skill, overturning clichés and sneaking in a few sucker punches of their own.
With the tone set at the bleakest setting of gray imaginable, the two titular “dogs” are explored further.
The assassin (named as Pang on the DVD box, though I never actually saw his character’s name in the subtitles) is indeed from overseas, but from Cambodia, not the expected Mainland China. Once he escapes from the police, he takes refuge in a huge trash dump, displacing the other alpha male and becoming the unexpected protector of a teenage girl (Pei Pei, a commercial actress making her film debut) who was living with the man in a tiny shed. The girl is stunted at an even younger emotional age than the assassin, and clings to him even after he has beaten her repeatedly.
The assassin is stranded in a strange land where he doesn’t know the language, but his instinct for survival has been honed to an extreme degree and he is determined to get home, no matter the cost in human lives. His baser gut reactions are tempered a little by the young girl’s pathetic state, and when she becomes ill he exposes himself to possible capture to get her medical assistance. Still, you’re convinced he’ll dump her at a moment’s notice if she slows him down too much.
The other “dog” takes a few minutes to establish his animal identify. Wai (Sam Lee) arrives sleepy-eyed to the first murder scene. He’s hounded by his boss (Eddie Cheung Siu Fai) and protected by his partner (Lam Suet). His first instinct is to physically attack a witness who’s not sufficiently forthcoming for his taste, but he’s also smart enough to sniff out the assassin as he tries to sneak away.
Wai is given almost enough motivation by the assassin’s murderous ruthlessness to justify his own brutality toward witnesses and informants as he scorches the earth to find the killer. And what appears to tip the scales in his favor is the sad state of his father (Lam Ka Wah), in a coma for a year since a drug bust went bad. Yet the speed with which Wai shifts gears into ‘sadistic officer’ mode indicates that much deeper psychological currents are swirling inside.
As the “dogs” bite each other and those around them, more bits and pieces of their personal lives come floating to the surface. The tension and discomfort in watching this vision of Hell on earth doesn’t slacken. It feels as if you’re bleeding to death; even though someone has applied a tourniquet, you’re a long way from a hospital.
Nearly six years have elapsed since Edison Chen and Sam Lee were teamed for GEN-Y COPS, the widely-ridiculed police thriller that featured English dialogue written by Bey Logan, consisting chiefly of pseudo-American rap slang. (Full disclosure: I enjoyed it more than GEN-X COPS, though I realize that’s not saying much.) At the time, I described Chen’s performance as “embarrassing” and Lee’s as “enjoyable, though not overly impressive.”
Chen’s reputation in Hong Kong as a pretty, spoiled party boy may have worked against local audiences embracing his work, but for those not saddled with that baggage, it’s easy to accept his angular, hollow-cheeked look as that of a hungry outsider desperate for survival. Lee may be better known for his comic relief rather than his dramatic abilities, but he is more than capable of expressing the short-fused, relentless fury of his character.
Newcomer Pei Pei makes a striking impression as the sad trash dump girl, while the reliable Lam Suet and the haggard Lam Ka Wah stand out among the supporting cast.
Here I must confess that I’ve been woefully ignorant of director Soi Cheang’s work up to now, a situation I plan to remedy post-haste. The fact that I haven’t seen any of his films doesn’t mean I wasn’t aware of what he was doing — he’s received plaudits since his debut, DIAMOND HILL, for pursuing a vision of rough-looking pictures with a realistic, personal edge.
He worked long enough as an assistant director to have a feeling for what works and what doesn’t — as he states in the audio commentary — and DOG BITE DOG looks to be the antithesis of a slick, Hollywood wannabe. It’s a throwback to some of the nasty, stomach-churning tension-builders of the late 80s and early 90s, and the violence is presented in such a down-to-earth, in-your-face fashion, that you’ll find yourself wincing more than once.
The director’s secret weapon here may be writer Matt Chow. The first draft was evidently written by Szeto Kam Yuen, a veteran of late 90s Milkyway Image productions like THE LONGEST NITE and A HERO NEVER DIES, as well as several of the director’s earlier films and SPL, but — according to the director on the audio commentary — Chow rewrote the script, filling out the characterizations and adding a few blackly humorous bits of business. Chow began as a writer, but quickly added acting to his resume and moved to the director’s chair in 1997. His scripts have been noted for his light touch; with DOG BITE DOG he digs deeper than ever before into the dark heart of modern Hong Kong.
Twitch’s Todd and Mack both liked DOG BITE DOG, but were not happy with how the filmmakers chose to resolve the story. (You’ll notice the departure point when you see it.) As highly as I think of the film, I must reluctantly agree. If any readers wish to discuss or disagree, let’s do so in the ‘Comments’ section to avoid any further spoilage.
Even with this reservation noted, I still feel DOG BITE DOG is a must see for anyone with a taste for dark, nihilistic cinema.
* DVD Notes *
The all-region single-disk edition from Joy Sales looks and sounds good. The source print does not appear pristine, but it’s such a darkly-lit film that I’m not sure how much that matters. (For the record, I watched it on a 26-inch LCD monitor.) It’s 16×9 enhanced.
Three audio tracks are included: Cantonese DD 5.1, Cantonese DTS, and Mandarin DD 5.1. The English subtitles were well-timed and easy to read. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.
An exceptionally forthcoming audio commentary with director Soi Cheang and producer Sam Leung makes a fascinating listen (or read — it’s subtitled in English). Moderated by the DVD’s producer, named only as “William,” four fans were also invited to sit in and occasionally ask embarrassing questions that are sidestepped or ignored by the filmmakers. (Sample comment by fan: “I didn’t like the dog noises that were dubbed in, or when Edison’s character is called a dog. I don’t like such obvious things.” Director’s response: “It’s a matter of personal preference.”) They get sidetracked occasionally (as with a long digression about an invented road sign), but the back and forth about the commercial failure of the film in Hong Kong and the risky decision to forego softening the film’s violent themes (and therefore eliminate the possibility of reaching a huge potential Mainland audience) make this track a must play.
A two-disk edition is expected to be released on October 31. That version includes two hours worth of deleted scenes, outtakes, behind the scenes video, interviews, trailers, and a photo gallery (according to the always helpful Asian DVD Guide.
(This entire review was originally published at Twitch.)