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  Prison on Fire Jail Time
Year: 1987
Director: Ringo Lam
Stars: Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Ho Ka-Kui, Roy Cheung, Victor Hon, Frankie Ng Chi-Hung, Wong Kwong Leung, Wong Man-Gwan, Joseph Chi, Shing Fui-On, Leung Ming, Fung Shui-Jan, Chan Yuen-Tat, Law Shu-Kei, Nam Yin, Gan Shui-Chiu
Genre: Drama, Action, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 2 votes)
Review: Lo Ka Yui (Tony Leung Ka Fai), like many people in prison, never expected to end up there. He was a nice, middle class boy who was law-abiding for most of his life, until one fateful night where his shopkeeper father was assaulted by ruffians who refused to pay for their tea, and before he knew what was happening, Ka Yui was convicted on a manslaughter charge and given a two-year sentence. On arrival, he is utterly humiliated by the experience: the strip search, giving up all his possessions, the painful medical examinations, and so on. But more than that, he knows all too fearfully that he is weak, and it will take a miracle for him to survive amongst the gangs of the prison alone...

Lucky for Ka Yui, he has someone who will take him under his wing, and he is one of the coolest action stars to emerge from Hong Kong in the nineteen-eighties. Step forward Chow Yun-Fat, given another leading role by director Ringo Lam after their popular collaboration in dramatic cop thriller City on Fire: this would be middle section in Lam's Fire trilogy this decade, as he would follow it with another institution-based action effort, School on Fire. Opinions vary on which is the best of the three, with the prison entry admired for its uncompromising nature (as the other two are, to be fair), yet perhaps on the deficient side thanks to its attraction to some very well-worn clichés.

Well, you watch a prison movie and you come to expect certain elements to arise, be it a men in prison flick or a women in prison flick, two distinct sides of the genre with their own rules, but a degree of overlap. A shower scene in the W.I.P. effort is meant to titillate, and there will also be a lesbian scene or two for the same reason, but for the men such things will rarely be overt and must be discerned by the seasoned viewer, indeed, fan of such pictures. The bond between Tony and Yun-Fat did not completely bring out the love that dare not speak its name, as Lo's fiancée is pretty prominently placed on visiting days, and Chow's Chung is married with a little boy to look after.

Therefore Lo is more like a son to Chung than a boyfriend, though there are slight hints of attraction in their performances, but when the big, bad gang boss, Micky (Ho Ka-Kui) takes a dislike to the newcomer after he mistakenly believes he is an informer - and has informed on Micky - Chung does his best to help his friend survive. This was all as tough as Lam and his writer brother Nam Yin could make it, though that did not prevent the plot dipping into melodrama every so often, even getting cartoonish in places, yet what was made apparent was the gangsters were not the main problem behind bars as the prison guards and authorities were, if anything, even worse. Chief among those threats was Officer Hung, played by regular heavy, the long-faced Roy Cheung, who exploits his power over the jailed.

The implication was that the guards were there for a power trip, bringing out the baton as often as possible and exercising petty commands over the prisoners, not to keep them in line, more to keep them downtrodden and feeling like the worst of the worst. This was to have us understand why the pressure cooker situation erupts as it does, and not merely once either, so while you could argue that criminals have imposed the lack of rights they suffer on themselves by breaking the law in the first place, the case of Lo is more troubling since he could justifiably be allowed to be excused under a self-defence plea, but was not permitted to. Chow was as charismatic as ever, deceptively happy-go-lucky in the first half as the morale gradually slides (Leung was acting morale-free from minute one, of course, it's a matter of everyone else descending to his level), but by the end, his treatment as if he were a hated dog has driven him to utter madness. Despite the bleakness and violence, Lam managed a happy ending, however, which was a little odd. Music by Lowell Lo (songs are important).
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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Review Comments (1)
Posted by:
Andrew Pragasam
Date:
22 Aug 2019
  City on Fire remains the most critically-lauded of Ringo Lam's trilogy but Prison on Fire was the one that really connected with the Hong Kong film-going public. Which is why we got the sequel. 2016 saw Lam deliver Sky on Fire whose big success at the Chinese box-office may well have heralded a new trilogy. Alas, such hopes ended with Lam's untimely death.
       


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