Imprisoned: Survival Guide for the Rich and Prodigal (2015, Hong Kong)
You might expect a range of helpful tips in a prison survival guide. In this slightly offbeat comedy-drama, it seems that there’s just one: buy your way out of trouble.
I:SGftRaP gives a healthy nod to some of the old Hong Kong prison movies, including Prison on Fire (1987), Prison on Fire 2 (1990) and to a lesser extent, Chinese Midnight Express II (1999). Its familiar features include a humorous cavity search (ho ho!), an officially condoned bashing of a sex offender, the brown prisoner uniforms that tell you you’re in a Hong Kong prison, a sunglass-wearing assistant warden, and the squashed-faced Wong Kwong Leung – a relic from both the Prison on Fire movies – as Szeto, the boss of the prisoners’ dorm. It also borrows from Prison on Fire: Preacher (2002) in having a Bible-quoting ‘uncle’ figure who gently leads the protagonist towards redemption.
But it does boast a different take on the standard ‘new fish’ story: in this case involving Nelson Yu (Gregory Wong), playboy (read serial cheater on his girlfriend) and spoilt, rich brat, who knocks down a little old lady pedestrian when he is driving his Maserati while both drunk and being fellated by a new companion. He then drives off, failing to render assistance. If we need another reason not to like him, he gives us one when his indulgent mother tells him she’ll buy him a new Maserati… and he whines that it will be outdated by the time he gets out in 18 months’ time.
Prison is not his thing, but he recognises it from those Prison on Fire movies. What he wasn’t ready for was the revelation that “prison is an evil cigarette world.” Cigarettes are not just the prison currency. They define the prison hierarchy; Nelson’s loyal and limpy friend, Ng Jail (nicknamed ‘[Cock]Roach’), pathetically scams and scavenges cigarette butts while Nelson soon finds that he can buy good food, massages – almost anything – through having cigarettes sent in. He buys a truce with the mad and bad, triad-connected Jack Leui (Justin Cheung), whose girlfriend he slept with, with a thousand packets. Another, a sex offender, staves off a beating by supplying smokes all round.
The film mines some well-worn, adolescent comedic elements of prison; the cavity search, obviously, the inedibility of the food, a new twist on the picking-up-the-soap-in-the-shower, and Nelson’s infatuation with cleavage. And some not so well-worn, including his nauseous battle with soiled underwear in the laundry and running jokes about masturbatory aids and pearls and ball bearings implanted into penises.
It didn’t work for me, I’m afraid. For starters, it was a constant source of surprise that, while they benefit from his largesse, the other prisoners didn’t try to extort truckloads of cash from the impudent filthy-rich kid. Secondly, Nelson has virtually no redeeming features and it takes a long time for other prisoners, first Szeto and his enforcers, and then the Bible-wielding Uncle Dat (Liu Kai Chi), to remind him, forcefully, that his monied perspective might (a) be different to theirs, and (b) be at the heart of his contemptible inability to stand on his own. “Let your desire do the leading, and all your life you will be worthless,” Uncle Dat tells him, and he listens. But it’s too late; by then, it’s unlikely that anyone will be interested enough in him to care what happens next, despite a number of frantic attempts at redemption, in various ways, in the film’s final minutes.
Tip #2 for prodigal rich kids, for life outside of prison, is apparently not to buy your way out of trouble.
Posted on March 6th, 2017 at 4:40 pm. Updated on March 6th, 2017 at 4:40 pm.
#307 in the Top 500