When Pou-Soi Cheang released Gau Ngao Gau (Dog Bite Dog), not many people were expecting the tour de force he dished out. Not that Cheang had been making bad films up to that point (on the contrary even), but for some reason Cheang had remained stubbornly off the radar of most Western film fans. This film changed all that. While Gau Ngao Gau didn't exactly result in global mass hysteria, it did open the way for Cheang to a more respectable (and respected) career.
Gau Ngao Gau is the first film where Pou-Soi Cheang (Shamo, Accident) effectively succeeds in blending gritty characters and settings with a more melodramatic background story. And gritty it is, the first hour is a pretty raw and relentless police tale taking place in the underbelly of Hong Kong. When the film moves to Cambodia Cheang introduces more drama, but by then the film is powerful enough to withstand any traces of false sentimentality.
The film follows the journey of a Cambodian serial killer (Pang) travelling to Hong Kong to hunt down his latest hit. The boy is little more than a slave, a poor, young kid brought up to fight, kill and obey the wishes of his master. After his job is done Pang becomes the target of the Hong Kong police and kills a few cops in the process, after which the police is more than eager to stop Pang before he reaches the border.
Before Pang returns to Cambodia he picks up a girl living on a garbage dump. The two hook up and Pang plans to live out his life peacefully once they return to Cambodia. At the same time one of the rookie cops assigned to the case is struggling with the fact that he has to follow in the footsteps of his father. In between those two storylines there's plenty of drama to go around, but Cheang keeps it within the bounds of the acceptable.
Visually Cheang successfully pursues a dark and gritty atmosphere. There's some noticeable grain in the images, but that doesn't stop him from shooting some pretty slick pictures. The camera angles in particular are quite unique and help to give the film its own identity. Lighting too is top notch, highlighting the beauty of the backdrops and making for some very atmospheric moments.
But it's the soundtrack where Cheang truly excels. Not just the actual music, but the combination with the sound effects and the way they are both mangled by some serious distortion is pretty damn cool. The titular "dog" is injected right into the soundtrack by introducing raw and gnarly growls and barks whenever Pang is going into killer mode, resulting in some pretty dark and intense action scenes. A skilful move by Cheang that earns the film some extra credit.
The acting too is pretty impressive. Edison Chen is superb as Pang, putting a lot of animal gestures and behavior into his character. For someone who looks like a classic Hong Kong pop idol, he comes off pretty creepy here. Sam Lee shines as the rookie cop, while the secondary cast is overall solid (with a nice - although somewhat short-lived - role reserved for Lam Suet).
With the ending in sight, there's a rather big shift in tone and style which I found quite difficult to place the first time around. Now though, knowing exactly what was to come, I didn't have any real qualms with it. The ending is still a bit unusual, but it's as much part of the film than the darker and rawer first hour and serves as nice counterweight. Not that everything is pink and rosy when the end credits start rolling, but it's a fitting ending that isn't all too depressing.
Gau Ngao Gau is a film that held up respectfully over time. It was one of the first films to make me dig deeper into the endless pit of Hong Kong cinema and it still holds it ground well. Cheang flexes his directorial muscles, offering great visuals, an impressive soundtrack and an interesting story that differentiates plenty from standard Hong Kong fare. If you're looking for an entry point into the darker and grittier realms of Hong Kong cinema, this is definitely your film.