Great Escape from Women’s Prison (1976, South Korea / Hong Kong / Taiwan)

Also known as ‘Excessive Torture in a Female Prison Camp’ (as distinct from reasonable, permissible torture, of course), this is a film more about love and patriotism than either escape or torture.

The film is set during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the middle of World War II, but it’s not a POW camp; it’s a prison holding women who have been found guilty by a court. The only ones we see, though, are women who have killed Japanese men, nearly all of them after they (or their family members) have been raped or sexually assaulted.

Mu Yung (Yoon Mi-Ra), on the other hand, has killed a Japanese soldier who was not assaulting her but rather trying arrest her rebel husband – a loyalist guerrilla trying to rid Korea of the Japanese. She is tortured (most excruciatingly, her tongue is crushed in pair of pliers and teeth are pulled out), but refuses to divulge the place to where her husband is headed. She is sentenced to life imprisonment and placed in a cell with an exclusive Japanese man killer membership.

The other women include ‘The Tigress’, who is seemingly the top dog (or tigress); ‘Rice Bucket’ a woman whose over-fondness for food strangely led her to kill her employer who was sexually assaulting her; ‘Slipper’ who killed a man by hitting him over the head with a wooden slipper; ‘Fire Alarm’ who avenged the rape of her mother by burning down the house of the rapist, with him in it; and ‘Blade’, a circus performer who acrobatically stabbed a man who was attacking her sister.

They are soon joined by Yung’s sister Mai-Ling, who is immediately imposed upon to adorn the Superintendent’s bed, and acquiesces. She is lavished with perfume, lipstick, silk stockings, and special food – none of which endears her to her cellmates, who in equal measure are disapproving of her collaboration with the enemy and envious of her rewards. Yung and Mai-Ling’s mother, true to her family’s fighting patriotism, joins them as well; both new arrivals are imprisoned without trial on suspicion that they know where the rebels are hiding.

Even before Yung’s arrival, the women have determined that their only real hope is escape, and have recently started digging a tunnel from their cell; they calculate that they have to extend it 50 yards to get outside the wall. It’s one of those safe, spacious, airy tunnels that may well be self-excavating, for we don’t see that it requires any work on the part of the women to get it to the required length and magically no soil seems to be disposed of. They decide to escape on a stormy night to add to the degree of difficulty.

The Tigress and another woman are the first two down the hole. They get free, but on seeing water flooding into the tunnel’s mouth, turn back to divert the water away from it and get caught in the searchlight. They are shot. As punishment, those remaining are blindfolded and forced to walk over a narrow raised beam, under which are sharpened wooden spikes. Ouch.

Now, woven into all this drama is the story of Fung Kau (Lee Dae-Kun), a Korean man who has embraced the Japanese, has attained an officer’s rank in the Japanese army, and has enthusiastically joined the persecution of his own people. He once tried to capture Yung’s husband, and is then announced as the new Superintendent of the prison. It emerges that as a dorky young man he was in (unrequited) love with Yung, and still keeps a locket with her picture in it. Tricky, huh?

It becomes trickier when a drunken Fung Kau demands that Yung be brought to him, and her mother (having swapped into her daughter’s 207 shirt) attends in her stead. He objects to being reminded by her of his lack of success with Yung and chokes the older woman to death.

Yung, distraught, you’d think, escapes from the quarry where they work (a little reminiscent of Cool Hand Luke’s toilet break escape) but is soon recaptured, returned to Fung Kau, and sentenced to hang. The favoured Mai-Ling, thought now by the other women to be a Japanese spy, finally displays her double agent credentials for the rebel cause, and as Yung stands on the scaffold, Yung’s husband and his fellow rebels storm the prison. The women are freed! Hooray! Japanese rule over Korea ended in August 1945 with the Japanese surrender in WWII.

There’s not much subtlety in the characterisation of the Japanese and the Koreans; you are never left wondering who the good guys and the bad guys are. For all of that, it has its diverting moments, and the high beam in particular is inventive (if a little gruesome). It says a bit about doing what you have to do in prison to survive. And it says quite a bit more about loyalty to the cause, and to others. It says not much about prison.

 

 

 

Posted on July 3rd, 2019 at 9:35 pm. Updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 9:45 pm.

#212 in the Top 500

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