J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

A Prayer Before Dawn: Doing Time in Thailand


Getting involved with hardcore drugs in a nation like Thailand is a bad idea. A really bad idea. Mere words cannot express the awfulness of such a decision. British boxer Billy Moore made it anyway. He found Klong Prem prison was no Club Fed. That is a lesson he learns the hard way, over and over again in Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s A Prayer Before Dawn (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

Moore is hooked on yaba, a locally baked meth derivative. He also has anger management issues that do not make him a lot of fun to be around. Somehow the cops were tipped off to his drug use, which really couldn’t have been very difficult to figure out. Sauvaire does not show us any of the prosecution, but it is safe to infer Thai justice is swift. It is not specified how many years Moore is supposed to serve, but it could very likely be a life sentence.

It is never clear how much Thai Moore speaks. In fact, there is a good chance he has no fluency whatsoever. Nevertheless, he fakes it as well as he can, doing his best to protect himself from the horrors of prison life. It is touch-and-go for a while, but he finally achieves a bit of stability when he bribes his way onto the prison Muay Thai team and trains like mad to stay there. It provides him better living conditions, but all the other nasty facts of prison life remain unchanged.

To approximate Moore’s perspective, Dawn deliberately refuses to subtitle most of the incidental dialogue, but like the yaba-jonesing boxer, we really don’t need translations to get the general gist of it all. Sauvaire also heightens the disorientation with his restlessly whirling camera, but this is not cheap shaky-cam jiggling. It is a largely successful (if somewhat nauseating attempt) to recreate the whirling maelstrom of Moore’s world.

As Moore, Joe Cole is quite credible as a strung-out, unstable punk, but he lacks the charisma to explain away all the favors various people do for him. He also develops some intriguingly ambiguous romantic chemistry with Fame, a transgender prisoner (convicted of murdering her abusive father), played by Pornchanok Mabklang. Yet, it is rather frustrating to see the talent of Vithaya Pansringarm (recognizable to Western audiences for his work in Only God Forgives and The Last Executioner) is largely wasted in yet another prison warden role.

Dawn is almost too much (realism) and simultaneously not enough (narrative and context), but it is certainly a memorable cinematic experience. There is a good deal of Muay Thai action, but it is almost too brutal for martial arts fans to really enjoy it. This is a tough, uncompromising film. If it doesn’t scare you straight than no movie can. Recommended for those who appreciate no-holds-barred MMA and prison movies, A Prayer Before Dawn releases today on BluRay and DVD.

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