An explosive crime-drama that caused a sensation upon its release. Audiences gasped for breath from the bloodshed and violence, yet were deeply moved by the fraternal bond between the two leading characters. Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung are riveting as the inmates who get involved with the intracacies of the prision system. Written by
Towne 3, San Jose, Ca
Intense, convincing and gritty - all the things that can be expected from Ringo Lam
Hong Kong film maker Ringo Lam has done many extraordinary films during his career. They include the extremely bleak and violent "School on Fire" (1988), "City on Fire" (1987), the incredible "Full Contact" (1992) and "Prison on Fire 1 and 2" from 1987 and 1991. "Prison on Fire" stars the then raising star Chow Yun-Fat as Ching, a positive and friendly inmate in a prison in which Lo Ka Yiu, played by Tony Leung Ka Fai is sentenced. They are both judged for a manslaughter and now they'll have to survive the violence and triad corruption inside the stone. What follows is a very intense 100 minutes and a film that won't be remembered among the least effective works of the great Lam.
The film is pretty close to "School on Fire" even though it is not as fierce and pessimistic as that film which was made one year later. "Prison" is pretty powerful and believable depiction of the state of prisons in Hong Kong and how much power the triad members have there. Where "School" depicts the horrible violence among school children and triads, "Prison" depicts violence and terror among convicts and triads, and how it all may end as horribly as in "School". But this time Ringo leaves a hope for a better tomorrow (as Chow's character even mentions at one point) and so the film is much more optimistic than the harrowing "School". Still the finale in the prison is very violent and shocking so the ride through the prison won't be an easy or pleasant one at all, and why would Ringo do such a pointless and light film that wouldn't have its message and anything to say in the first place? That is exactly why his films are much more than just action and gun battles.
The cast is very good in "Prison" and it includes Roy Cheung as the violent warden "Scarface" and Roy can also be found as a triad leader in "School" and a cop in "City on Fire." The characters, especially Chow's and Tony's, seem to develop little too fast as their dramatic decisions and actions are not as carefully explained and introduced as possible. I mean the scenes like "the suicide attempt" and the angry and almost comical face expression Chow gives to "Scarface" at one point; they show that these men really can act (and they can) but these kind of actions should be little more restrained and explained, but still Chow's character is here much better than in "City on Fire" which suffers a lot from the weak character of Chow's.
The ending in "Prison" is near the rage and mayhem of "School" and I felt really bad during the finale, so once again Ringo has shown his unique talent and power of his cinema. Chow turns into the kind of wild animal that is hiding inside every one of us, and that just should be kept there forever no matter what the situation is. That kind of finale is very powerful and leaves the audience pretty stunned and often in pure disgust, as in the case of "School". Overall the violence in "Prison" is very strong and hurts almost as much the viewer as it does the characters and that is the only way to depict this horrible thing honestly and in a way that something important can be achieved and told by the film. I'm afraid the present day Hollywood wouldn't dare to do films like this, but fortunately there are alternatives and people who want to make films not just because of money.
"Prison" is composed by Lowell Lo, who has also made the soundtrack for films like "Naked Killer" (Clarence Fok, 1992), "The Killer" (John Woo, 1989) and Ringo's "School on Fire" but the usage of music is never as near as strong in "Prison" as it is in "School" and that is also among the elements that make "School" such a strong experience. "Prison" has also some very atmospheric photography inside the prison and there are some nice neon lights and almost mysterious lights coming through the windows at some points. There's also some very bright photography in the interiors and that creates almost a dream like feel to the film, and also depicts the state of mind of the inmates and how things vary from pure danger and alarm to peace and quiet inside the prison.
"Prison" is among the reasons why Hong Kong cinema is so powerful and unique and it is also among the reasons that make Ringo among the most talented directors in the field. His real masterpiece was still to come (Full Contact) but still "Prison" is among the most noteworthy achievements of his. 8/10
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