J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

HK Cinema at SFFS ‘17: With Prisoners

In America, budding criminals are much better off if they are tried and convicted as minors rather than adults. It is the exact opposite in Hong Kong. If this sounds perverse to you, many surviving youthful offender would readily agree. Their experiences with HK’s “short sharp shock” juvenile justice system are dramatized in Wong Kwok-kuen’s expose-like narrative, With Prisoners (trailer here), which screens during the San Francisco Film Society’s annual Hong Kong Cinema series.

Fan is a self-described “thug,” who is cocky enough to lay a smack-down on an off-duty cop during a fair and square bar fight. However, the abuse meted out at the Sha Tsui Detention Center will break him in a matter of days. Having survived one suicide attempt, Fan will knuckle down, becoming a model prisoner, by following the advice of Sharpie, a veteran re-offender. The older “boy” (prisoners as old as twenty-five are incarcerated at Sha Tsui) deliberately returned, to avenge a friend’s murder, which the guards dressed up as a suicide.

Most likely it was the work of the brutal senior guard Gwai, or one of his vicious comrades. Only the idealistic Ho and world weary veteran officer (rarely seen in the film) are beyond suspicion. Unfortunately, the soul-deadening violence of Sha Tsui is poisoning Ho’s relationship with his wife Samantha, a former junkie, whom he saved during his social-worker days.

There is plenty of socially conscious muckraking in With Prisoners. Realism certainly was not a problem, given the presence of many former inmates in the large supporting cast, including Mak Yee Ma, making an extraordinary debut as Sharpie. However, Wong and co-writer Wong Chi-bong include some more traditional crime drama elements to help pull viewers through, mostly revolving around the death of Sharpie’s friend and his subsequent pursuit of payback.

The quietly incendiary Mak is a heck of a discovery in Prisoners, but up-and-coming Neo Yau Hawk-sau also stretches his chops and range quite nicely as Fan. Kelvin Kwan’s is admirably earnest, but nobody can withstand the withering voltage of Lee Kwok-Lun’s work as the casually sadistic yet eerily charismatic Gwai. What makes it so scary and potent is the apparent effortlessness of his cruelty and how little it seems to affect him. It is a performance that ranks up with R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket.

Western viewers might be surprised by the complete absence of homosexual references or overtones in Prisoners, but this is a Hong Kong movie, so it is subject to homophobic Communist Party censorship. At least the film’s characters need not worry about sexual assault in addition to torture and murder. Regardless, the film never feels whitewashed, since there are plenty of violent scenes that will indeed trouble the faint of heart. Recommended for fans of prison films and reformist issue-oriented movies, With Prisoners screens this Sunday (10/1) as part of the SFFS’s Hong Kong Cinema.

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