Recently, when I saw the incredibly grim (but also oddly beautiful) Hong Kong serial killer movie LIMBO, I realized I should seek out some of the other movies I haven’t seen from director Soi Cheang (a.k.a. Cheang Pou-soi). DOG BITE DOG (2006) is one of his breakthrough movies, and it turns out it has many echoes (pre-echoes?) of LIMBO. Sometimes it feels almost like a remix (premix?).
LIMBO’s most striking feature (besides its black and white cinematography) is being set largely in alleys strewn with garbage. DOG BITE DOG opens with children in a garbage pile and has an important stretch taking place in a landfill. Both have an obsessed police detective who goes around savagely beating up informants, whose problems are connected to a family member currently in a coma. And in both the cop is chasing a transient killer from another country who is protecting a young, traumatized woman. But each of these things has a very different spin here than in LIMBO, the most significant being that this killer is a hitman rather than a serial killer, and is the protagonist. I think he’s even a sympathetic one. Eventually.
He’s played by Edison Chen (GEN-X COPS 2, THE TWINS EFFECT, THE DARK KNIGHT). I don’t think he has a name, and the Hong Kong Movie Database calls him “Cambodian hitman,” but IMDb calls him Pang. I’m gonna use that even if it’s wrong, just so I can call him something. “Pang” is obviously one of the dogs of the title, and it seems like kind of a DANNY THE DOG/UNLEASHED situation. Police later figure out (from a documentary that actually inspired the movie) that he comes from a group of Cambodian orphans raised to fight each other for money. “Like dogs,” you could say, but it would also be immoral and illegal to treat dogs that way.
He arrives in Hong Kong on a tiny boat, slurping up spilled gruel in a broken dish, is given cash, an address, a photo of a woman. He doesn’t speak the language and seems pretty much non-verbal anyway – we don’t hear him speak at all until about 40 minutes in. He goes to find his target at a restaurant, is confused by the food ordering process, but takes advantage of this opportunity feast. He’s obviously not gonna pay the tab he rings up, but you wonder if he even understands that he was supposed to.
After gulping down some food he walks over and coldly shoots this woman as she’s having dumplings with her husband. It’s a brutal crime, and it’s about to get worse. Among the detectives reporting to the scene are Inspector “Fat” Lam (Lam Suet, EXILED) and his young fuck up partner Inspector Ti Wai (Sam Lee, MAN OF TAI CHI). Everybody hates Wai, especially their boss Chief Inspector Sum (Eddie Cheung, THROW DOWN, DRUG WAR, BLACKHAT, SAKRA) because he’s late and smokes too much and fucks around and doesn’t live up to his legendary cop dad (Lam Ka-Wah, OVERHEARD), the guy in the coma. But while they’re all standing around scratching their heads, Wai spots their suspect outside and chases him to another public dining area.
Wai and Lam notice a woman shaking and holding back tears, so they realize their suspect is hiding under her table. In a very tense scene they communicate silently across the room with hand gestures, and signal a count down to each other and the hostage. Lam does save her and try to negotiate but Pang savagely shivs him through the throat. It’s a mean trick because they had Suet in there just long enough for me to believe this wasn’t just a cameo. But they’re pulling a Janet Leigh. Two brutal crimes, one against fans of Hong Kong cinema, so the stage is really set for us to hate him.
On the other hand, you gotta respect the tenacity of getting arrested and dragged into a car but after only a few blocks sliding out of one cuff, pulling the emergency brake, crashing the car and escaping on foot. We enjoy watching someone being good at their job.
We later catch up with him in a landfill. I’m not sure why he goes there, but he sees a disgusting dude (Phongpranot Kitkorn) living in a shack and assaulting a young woman named Yu (Pei Pei). Pang strangles the man to death and then starts to choke Yu as well, until he realizes from the photos on the wall that she’s the guy’s daughter. From that point on he takes care of her and promises (through a drawing of a boat) to take her away from there. They’re both very broken, they can’t verbally communicate, I couldn’t tell if they were supposed to be mentally disabled or just kinda feral from their abusive upbringings, but based on an interview with Cheang I now think it’s both. But they start to have affection for each other and try to escape together, so you kinda gotta root for them I think.
Pang pulls a pretty amazing move of punching through the side window of a car, yanking the driver out, beating him up, and stealing the vehicle. From what I knew about his backstory I didn’t think he would be able to drive, but you know what Dr. Loomis says: “He was doing all right last night. Maybe somebody around here gave him lessons.”
Meanwhile Wai is after them, and getting himself into more and more trouble. He accidentally shoots a bystander at the landfill, just leaves him there, surprisingly never tries to blame it on Pang. We learn that Wai’s daddy issues are different ones than anybody knows. Turns out he caught his dad selling drugs, shot him while trying to arrest him, but didn’t tell anybody. They think he’s freaking out because he doesn’t live up to his dad, but it’s actually because his dad sucks but he feels pressured to keep the myth alive.
Wai and Pang’s paths intersect again after Pang pulls a big nail out of Yu’s heel and knows that tending to her wounds with dirty water from a discarded soda cup isn’t enough. She seems to have tetanus or something so he takes the risk of bringing her to the hospital, and the cops figure it out and try to use her as bait. But eventually they make it to their boat and back to Cambodia. It’s heartbreaking to see him coming to this sweaty barn packed tight with men and boys trained to beat the shit out of each other, acting like he’s happy to be home, excited to introduce his new bride to his dad/boss/enslaver. The asshole knows the cops are on Pang’s trail, and disowns him as “a stray dog.”
Of course there are two dogs in the title, and the other one is Wai. There’s a poetry to the way they switch places. As Pang tries to find peace and start a family, Wai becomes more savage, brain-injured and, in his quest for vengeance, enlists as a fighter for Pang’s former “master.” Pang seems more civilized as he’s driving Yu on a road toward their hoped-for better tomorrow, and Wai has turned bestial, jumping on the back of their pickup truck and trying to stab them.
DOG BITE DOG is written by Matt Chow (TOO MANY WAYS TO BE NO. 1) & Kam-Yuen Szeto (SPL, MOTORWAY) and Melvin Li (MAD FATE). Cheang had ten movies before it, mostly horror, many still not available here. He followed this with the evil fighting tournament movie SHAMO. Actually a pretty logical (but darker) continuation of some of the ideas here.
I think this might have been his first movie that got wide release in the U.S., because it was part of the Dragon Dynasty line of DVDs – pretty good imprimatur despite the scumbags behind it. Their involvement and the cover photo of Chen in a tank top holding up a fist tricked me into thinking it would be some kind of underground fighting movie. That’s really not the case, and when they do return to Cambodia and we see some of it it’s more of a Peckinpah than a Woo situation: be appalled by the brutality of the violence rather than seeing any beauty in it. In an interview on the extras disc Cheang says, “This character is very direct. All beasts are the same. When they attack, it is either to drive you away or kill you. If they can’t drive you away, they kill you. That is one premise on which I based the action… I didn’t want to make violence romantic. I only wanted to show the audience how violent violence is.”
He’s so good and enamored with this blunt, bash-a-guy-in-the-head-repeatedly-with-a-rock type of combat that it’s almost surprising he was so masterful at directing heavy duty martial arts sequences when he did SPL 2/KILL ZONE 2. Anyway the martial arts fight director is Jack Wai-Leung Wong (LEGENDARY ASSASSIN, BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS, WOLF WARRIOR II) and the car stunts director is Roger Lee (ALL’S WELL, ENDS WELL 2012). They manage to fit in more car stunts than you might expect.
Like some of the other Cheang movies, it has kind of a backhanded happy ending – outrageously bleak and fucked up in any other context, but hopeful as far as this story and set of characters goes. At least on the transfer I saw, Pang and Yu never escape the sickly yellow tinting of the city (director of photography: Edmond Fung, THE GUILLOTINES), even when they get work out in a field harvesting what looks like maybe sweet potatoes. But there’s something pure and beautiful about these two getting at least one day to put their hands into the dirt instead of the endless piles of garbage.