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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

Shamo [Blu-ray]


(Cheang Pou Soi, 2007)







Review by Leonard Norwitz



Theatrical: Same Way & Art Port

Blu-ray: Tai Seng Entertainment (North America)



Region: FREE! (as verified by the Momitsu region FREE Blu-ray player)

Runtime: 1:45:15.000

Disc Size: 35,246,280,226 bytes

Feature Size: 31,264,217,088 bytes

Video Bitrate: 27.96 Mbps

Chapters: 21

Case: Standard Blu-ray case

Release date: May 26th, 2009



Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Resolution: 1080p / 24 fps

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC Video




DTS-HD Master Audio Chinese 2959 kbps 7.1 / 48 kHz / 2959 kbps / 16-bit (DTS Core: 5.1 / 48 kHz / 1509 kbps / 16-bit)
Dolby TrueHD Audio Chinese 2224 kbps 7.1 / 48 kHz / 2224 kbps / 16-bit (AC3 Core: 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps)
Dolby Digital Audio English 640 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio Chinese 640 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio English 384 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 384 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio English 384 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 384 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio Vietnamese 384 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 384 kbps



English, Chinese (traditional and simplified), none



• Audio Commentary with Members of the Subway Cinema

• Audio Commentary with Ric Myers, Joe Rogan and Frank Djeng

• Interview – (31:38)

• Making-of - (3:23)

• Photo Gallery

• Original Trailer



The Film: 6  
Cheang Pou-Soi's 2007 movie adaptation of the Japanese manga by Izo Hashimoto was, to put it mildly, not well-received by critics, even though it garnered nominations for Taiwan's Golden Horse for Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography and Action Choreography. The film's structure ignores traditional arcs and instead settles on a series of tableaux that feel more like punches to the gut than development of either character or plot. Many argue that the film's final reveal is not properly set up and our having to re-interpret our impressions of the first hour and a half is more of a betrayal than a flash of insight.

In this light it's hard not to see the movie as a sequence of metaphors, this despite the hard hitting fight sequences, the prison rapes, and the main character's repeated failures to overcome we know not what – at least not for the first 90 minutes. The movie is, simultaneously, deliberately artful while seeming to create sympathy for a person who confessed to the killing of his parents without any apparent motive. Ryu (Shawn Yue) is under 18 and therefore given only two years in juvenile prison where he suffers rape and torture at the encouragement of the warden (Ryo Ishibashi). Not satisfied with his raving sadism, the warden brings in a karate instructor, Kenji Kurokawa (Francis Ng), who first teaches Ryu how to defend himself and to become a weapon in his own right, and then beats the living hell out of him.

The second act follows Ryu as he searches for his surviving sister (Wing Pei-Pei) and who, when she visited him in jail, made it clear that he destroyed her life and she wanted nothing further to do him. (It is a scene that will come back to haunt our filmmakers and many a critic.) In the process he meets Matsumi (Annie Liu) a prostitute who, in her own way, is just as lost as Ryu. From Matsumi it is only a step across the street to the world of Lethal Fight boxing, where, we vainly hope, Ryu will find some morsel of salvation, some restoration of soul. Such is not to be. We need to be content with seeing the movie as a series of consequences, all of which are pretty much the same: Ryu is used and used up as he makes one bad decision after another. To paraphrase an old saying: "Hell is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results."



Image: 8/9   NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were taken directly from the Blu-ray disc.
The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray video discs on a ten-point scale. The second number places this image along the full range of DVD and Blu-ray discs.

While not winning any awards for sharpness, I have the feeling that Tae Seng's 1080p transfer is better looking than most people ever got to see in the theater. Contrast control is superb, especially when you consider that Shamo is an exercise in artistic over the top and under the bottom lighting. For all its darkness, shadow detail survives with hardly any noise in the bargain. There is some color fringing along the edges here and there but it does not detract. Once we get past the opening logos, the print remains clean throughout. I noticed no other distracting transfer issues. Tai Seng crops the frame at 1.88:1.
















Audio & Music: 5/7
Once I was able to engage either the Cantonese DTS-HD MA or Dolby TrueHD tracks, it seemed clear to me that the surround and front channels are incorrectly mixed – the balance and the relative shapes and sizes of dialogue (especially) and effects are simply disparate, dizzying strands, with no glue between them. The Mandarin DD 5.1 dub, on the other hand is approximately correct. Better still is bypassing the surround system altogether and accessing the DTS uncompressed mix through digital out on the OPPO (of, course, it's not really uncompressed or surround at that point) and into a separate digital-to-analog converter and then into my sound system – That, my friends, is awesome, with plenty of integrated kick-ass effects, music, and clear, properly sized dialogue. Weird. Weird. Weird.


Operations: 2
My initial attempts at engaging either of the uncompressed Cantonese audio tracks from the remote were met with little or no volume from the front channels. Undaunted, I tried accessing them from the Set-up. Still nothing. And still undaunted, I clicked through all of them in turn, which magically reset the function and the front channels appeared from nowhere on the two main uncompressed mixes. On the subject of volume, the menu volume is way louder than it needs to be, especially in comparison with the feature film. Capping off this peculiar showing in the operations department is the omission of the names of the commentators – I think there are five altogether.



Extras: 4
When you check out your info as you play the "Interview" and "Making-Of" features it will come up as AVC with bit rates in the low teens, but don't think for one minute these are HD transfers. The optimistically titled "Making-of" segment, which is best skipped anyhow (as is the Photo Gallery and Trailer), is pretty shabby stuff. The "Interview," in which we hear from several members of the cast and see how their characters come alive in the movie, is much more useful. It's subtitled and in bright but acceptable anamorphic 16x9. I have the feeling that these two segments have had their titles reversed.

More important and entertaining by far are the two panel commentaries. Both are sources of enormous quantities of information about current Asian film. I listened mostly to the second, with occasional visits to the first. The commentators introduce themselves, but their names are not always clearly articulated, nor are they are credited on the video box, so my apologies if I get any of this wrong. The first commentary is by three of the members of the Subway Cinema (NY Asian Film Festival). The second is with Ric Myers (author of "Great Martial Arts Movies," and contributor to Asian Cult Cinema & Inside Kung Fu), Joe Rogan (martial arts fighter and writer about comics) and Frank Djeng (Tae Seng). They discuss the movie in the context of the original manga and how the film differs; Japanese vs. Chinese approaches to contemporary filmmaking; ditto that for Hong Kong and Mainland China; the actors and their characters; and their various takes on the success or not of the movie on its own terms. A valuable discussion, but one you should not listen to unless you have already watched the movie. Same for commentary #1.



Bottom line: 6
Shamo may be a triumph of style over substance, but well crafted style is still worth a look, as is this movie. The transfer is quite good, the audio problematic (though I found an agreeable solution), the commentaries superb and worth hearing if you want to learn something about Asian film that isn't about historical legends, triads, or romances.

Leonard Norwitz
March 23rd, 2010







About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.

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