Prison on Fire (1987, Hong Kong)

Prison on Fire

Quaint and oddly acclaimed film which is not a prison-based Inferno as the title might lead one to expect.

Rather, it follows a naive first-timer, Yiu (Tony Leung) who gets 3 years for manslaughter after accidentally pushing one of a gang of youths who had just robbed and assaulted him and his father into the path of a bus, as he negotiates his way through his sentence.  He’s awfully out of place, but finds an unlikely ally in ‘Mad Dog’ Ching (Chow Yum Fat), a seasoned prisoner, who tolerates Yiu constantly getting him into conflict with the triad bosses and continues to defend him. The sinister head of Security, Hung, plays the prison gangs off against each other, often using one of the triad bosses, Mickey, to retain control – and Yiu is often the collateral damage, conveniently accused by Mickey of being an informer to take the heat off himself. All sorts of trouble then occurs after the prisoners are locked in their dorm, and the prison officers tend to let the prisoners sort things out themselves.

The plot, which concentrates on jail politics and the odd bond between Mad Dog and the greenhorn Yiu, is punctuated by unconvincing fight scenes (including one awfully choreographed all-in brawl in a yard) and odd references to the battle Yiu has to keep his girlfriend, culminates in a bloody dormitory riot after a mass hunger strike over a cigarette price hike raises tensions within the prisoner group and the fighting extends to staff who belatedly try to break things up. At least we get to see how Ching, who is extremely amiable for bulk of the film, earned his nickname.

The film’s quaintness lies in the simplicity with which the tale is told and shot, and weird scenes (or perhaps accurate reflections of life in a Hong Kong prison) where prisoners safely challenge the guards to their faces, or hold risky conversations with staff (in which they make themselves very vulnerable) within earshot of 50 other prisoners; at its worst, it is reminiscent of Prisoner, at its best, it is, well, much better than Prisoner.

Prison on Fire #2

Posted on May 16th, 2009 at 2:10 pm. Updated on August 21st, 2009 at 6:45 pm.

#121 in the Top 500

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