With Prisoners

Dinner is served.

(2016) True Crime Drama (Times Production Ltd) Neo Yau Hiewk-sau, Kelvin Kwan, Edward Chui, Kimi Chiu, Lee Kwok Lun, Raymond Chiu, Kwok Yik Sum, Amy Tam, Gill Mohindepaul Singh, Han Wan, DreGar, Luk Yuen Yee, Mak Yee Ma, Sham Ka Ki. Directed by Kwok Kuen Wong

Dostoevsky once wrote that you can tell how civilized a society is by how it treats its prisoners. Who am I to disagree with so distinguished an author? In fact, I completely agree; most societies seem to be all about punishment ahead of rehabilitation. It doesn’t seem to be much of a concern that convicts be given the tools to go straight and lead a law-abiding life; the general consensus is that if they come back we’ve always got a cell and if we run short we can always build more. As for brutality, those who are in jail are there because they’re guilty of something and thus they deserve whatever they get.

Fan (Hiewk-sau) is a thug and proud of it. He lives with his Nana (Yee) who disapproves of his lifestyle, but he’s young, arrogant and has a quick temper. He has ambitions of becoming a big crime boss, but after getting into a brawl with a drunk police officer in a bar he ends up convicted of assaulting a police officer and is shuttled to prison in Hong Kong’s “Short Sharp Shock” program, an accelerated boot camp-like environment designed to provide self-discipline for young men who sorely need it.

Immediately he discovers that while there is brutal discipline, it is enforced by cruel and sadistic punishments – at one point Fan is forced to clean the toilet with his fingers and then brush his teeth with those same fingers without a chance to wash them first. And yes, that’s as disgusting as it sounds. He is beaten by the guards, particularly the sadistic Gwai (Lun) who seems to take great pleasure in torturing the prisoners mentally as well as physically.

Things are so bad that he attempts to hang himself on only the third day but is saved by the quick-thinking guard Ho (Kwan) who alone among the guards seems to have any sort of humanity in him. He is the opposite of Gwai – he wants to see the kids rehabilitated and to make productive lives for themselves. He is deeply disturbed by the attitudes and behaviors of the other guards but the Warden (Singh) turns a blind eye so long as nothing negative reflects on him.

Fan eventually makes friends in prison, including the friendly Sing (Ki) and Sharpie (Ma) who has an agenda of his own. When word reaches Fan that his Nana is sick, he strives to become a model prisoner and get released early but will it come in time for him to see his Nana one last time? And once he is free, will he sink back into his old ways?

Based on actual events, the movie never really establishes a “this is the way it happened” feel to it. There are a lot of prison movie clichés that crop up – all that is missing is a prison riot climax – and some of the film actually feels more melodramatic than authentic.

That said, there is also a Scared Straight vibe as well. If you’re going to do the crime, you are likely to do the time and here, ladies and gentleman, is what that time looks like. There is very much a boot camp look to prison in Hong Kong with military-like marching, prisoners shouting “Good morning, sir!” at the top of their lungs every morning during role call and entire companies of prisoners forced to do push-ups and laps for the transgressions of a single guy. While there are beatings administered and sadistic punishments inflicted, there isn’t a ton of blood and the violence is pretty tame by American prison movie standards.

The two leads, Kwan and Hiewk-sau are both strong in their performances. Hiewk-sau goes from a smiling, snarling thug to a disciplined prisoner determined to get out early and see his nana and the transformation is both believable and compelling. Kwan’s character is more of a generic nice prison guard but there is a sub-plot involving his recovering addict wife that gives him more depth.

Hong Kong doesn’t produce a lot of prison movies but when it does they tend to be worth watching and this one is no exception. I would have liked something a little less slick and a little more gritty but I think that the difference in tastes between East and West might have something to do with that. In any case, there is ample reason to check this out should it appear in a festival near you or on your favorite specialty streaming channel.

REASONS TO GO: Hiewk-sau and Kwan give memorable performances. The movie can serve as a warning to those contemplating doing the crime as to what doing the time looks like.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is overly melodramatic in places. The film may be a bit tame for American tastes for this kind of movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Although the movie is fairly mild by prison movie standards, it does contain a brief scene of drug use, some mild profanity, sensuality, brief male rear nudity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mak Yee Ma, who plays the returning prisoner Sharpie, is the former convict whose story the movie is based upon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Violent Prosecutor
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Vampire Cleanup Department

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