When it comes to mixing genres, it’s usually recommended to be obvious. An action comedy or a horror romance typically works best when audiences can sense the split between the two. Viewers like their cinematic categories decipherable, if only because it allows them to draw on an internal list of expectations and prepared responses. Dread should be scary, witticisms humorous, etc. But mix the combination too subtlety, shade a drama with just the slightest hint of science fiction or fantasy, and you threaten to leave the observer dumbfounded. David Lynch does this all the time, simply because he will use any and all filmmaking standards and subcategories to fulfill his artistic means. This leaves a tantalizing title like Dog Bite Dog in a similar cinematic quandary. What we supposedly have here is a typical cops vs. criminal adrenaline rush. But thanks to some unusual thematic and stylistic choices, the movie mutates between firefights and frights, standard stunt set-pieces and moments of moody macabre.
When the wife of a prominent judge is murdered in cold blood, Hong Kong police are baffled. Obviously a professional hit, they hope to locate the killer before he finds a way to escape their grasp. On a hunch, disgraced policeman Wai follows a suspicious man. Their eventual confrontation leaves no question of the stranger’s culpability. Looking for a place to lie low, murderer Pang procures the help of a young girl living in a landfill. She’s more than happy to help, the daily abuse by her incestuous father having successfully destroyed her spirit. As Internal Affairs investigates Wai (as a way of getting to his comatose cop father) and the crew assigned to the crime grows agitated, Pang plans his escape. He will take the girl, hijack a boat, and return to his Cambodian home. Of course, his pursuer has other plans, and it’s not long before the two are battling among the side streets and warehouses of the business/harbor district. It’s a war that will continue across borders and into countries where such inhuman confrontations are a matter of course.
We know we’re in for something different from the opening shots. While the title sequence suggests Nine Inch Nails gone even more industrial, the first glimpses of assassin Pang come as a big surprise. Hiding in the hold of a massive cargo ship, he is fed like an animal, a broken bowl of rice cherished like a convicted felon’s final meal. Before we know it, our antihero is pumping five bullets – several at point blank range – right into the head of an elegant older lady. While it’s vile and viscous, the crime is not really the issue here. Director Cheang is actually more interested in how animalistic individuals interact (thus the title). Of course, it takes a while before policeman Wai lowers himself to Pang’s level, but we get hints along the way. Though its somewhat skimmed over, we see the officer dealing in dope, beating suspects, torturing informants and generally acting like an unhinged madman. We expect fireworks when these two interact. What we get, instead, are confrontations so cruel they literally make one wince.
These aren’t gory, gratuitous exchanges. Instead, Cheang stages them to maximize the mindless hostility involved. Pang has been raised to be this violent. Wai has worked all his dangling Daddy issues into a tight little nuclear ball, and he can’t help but explode. Backstory is limited, so Dog Bite Dog is never really interested in getting into the psychological or symbolic manner of our good guy/bad guy’s past. Instead, these powder keg personalities simply go off (and often), leaving dozens of corpses and confounded witnesses in their wake. Even more impressive, Cheang is not afraid to kill off his characters. Though Hong Kong action films have their standard disposable victim fodder (usually a fat, oafish officer or a buffoonish bureaucrat), this movie more or less leaves everyone up for the Grim Reaper’s grasp. It truly heightens the suspense when, as Roger Ebert and Gene Sickel loved to argue, anyone can die at anytime – and typically does.
Even better, the whole landfill subplot gives the movie a uniquely maudlin edge. In the commentary track that accompanies this new DVD release, actor Edison Chen (who plays Pang) discusses the whole garbage village culture, from the massive mound itself – several football fields in size – to the unconscionable way people use the rotting refuse. Such authenticity really makes the relationship between Pang and the slightly slow girl he rescues into something bordering on old fashioned tragedy. It feels like John Woo worked through a 1930s Hollywood tearjerker. On the polar opposite of visual intrigue is actor Sam “Wai” Lee’s transformation from cop to caged beast toward the end. On the second disc of extras provided with the title (including interviews with Chen, director Cheang, and a thorough Making-Of), the star discusses his approach to character, and points out that Wai and Pang are really two sides of the same corrupt coin. Law is of no import to their purpose – unless it’s the natural order of kill or be killed.
Fans used to high flying martial artistry, slo-mo bullet ballets, and overly stylized sequences of outrageous and dangerous stuntwork will probably see Dog Bite Dog as something of a letdown. It’s more mano-y-mano than badass swagger and cool jazz heroism. It’s a dark, dense tale of terror told with sharp implements and callousness vs. the supernatural and the creepy. With an ending as bleak as they come, and a sense that everything we’ve seen has perhaps been all for naught (though the alternate narrative track suggests final shots that would have stated otherwise), it’s a tough, uncompromising entertainment. While most Hong Kong action aficionados think they’ve seen it all, Dog Bite Dog suggests otherwise. It stands as an understated film fusion that succeeds in staying true to all the references it relies on.