Classic Chinese Cinema: Prison on Fire (1987)

There are two versions of prison movies,one is prison break movies like Shawshank Redemption,Le Trou and A Man Escaped,the other is fantasy movies like The Green Mile.The Hong Kong film Prison on Fire doesn’t belong to neither of them,it’s the third kind,the realistic prison movie without any smart attempts of prison break or fantastic special effects of any kind.

The plot mostly involves the two main characters, Ching and Yiu and problems they face with Mickey, a fellow inmate and “Killer”, a prison guard. Yiu is sentenced to three years for manslaughter. In a fight for his father, he pushed a man that was then run over by a bus.Ching was sent to prison for killing his wife for being a prostitute.During the end of the film, inmates decide to go on hunger strike to protest against the cigarette price rise, this causes problems with Assassin.Ching bit Killer’s ear off and gets an extended sentence, continued on Prison on Fire II, Yiu is released later on.

This film is about the real joy and pains of prisoners,suppression and anti-suppression,friendship and humanity,the whole Hong Kong society is reflected in the cells.

Two friends,Ching and Yiu


What really makes this film special is the way the director Ringo Lam shoots the film,totally realistic.When he begins to make the film,he only asks the art director to prepare a big cell for him,then he casts a bunch of actors who regularly appear in Hong Kong crime and gangster films,which makes the film pretty much like a gangster film happens in prison.

Ringo Lam instantly grab the real dynamic from the start of the film,a new “fish” is put in cell and is bullied by the gangsters since day one,quickly he meets the “McMurphy” guy who becomes his friend,the prison police can’t handle him because he holds the evidence which will prevent the promotion of the police.Gangster,”innocent” friends,and policemen,and the relationships among them are effectively displayed in the very first few scenes.

As every typical gangster film,the tension grows as the film proceeds.The fight between good and evil upgrades,the seeds of vengeance buried in previous scenes begins to grow.Also,the conflict between the “citizens” and “country machine” begins to reveal in the middle part of the film,and the audience can sense the police is not any better than those gangsters.The dark tone throughout the film is exactly what Ringo Lam wants to express:the Hong Kong society is fuck-up by those criminals and the police has lost its function as the protection of its people,that’s why the situation only grows worse.In the end,the big revolt is suppressed,it’s like the director is saying: The dark force of society is too strong,but we still need heroes like  Ching and Yiu to fight and shake the system.

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Prisoners being suppressed by the police


Ringo Lam said in the interview that his biggest success in this film is regarding all these prisoners as humans,he doesn’t see them through filter glasses.He doesn’t intentionally uglifies them,but feels their emotions and intentions,and makes it believable.

There is a scene in the film,it happens in the Chinese New Year,all the prisoners are wearing new dresses and dance with the classic love song “Tian Mimi” in the background,Ringo Lam shoots the whole sequence in slow motion,audiences can sense the happiness by the looks on every prisoner’s face.Such beautiful and romantic scene appears in such a cruel and dark film really impresses people who has seen it.

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Prisoners are planning a hunger strike


The two leading roles are played by famous Hong Kong actors Chow Yun-fat and Tony Leung Ka-fai.Before and after this film,you can see Chow Yun-fat’s face in nearly every John Woo action film with deep-moving friendship in it like Hard Boiled,A Better Tomorrow and The Killer.He’s the kind of actor who can act with his eyes,you can feel everything in his eyes,when he makes friends in films,you know he would die for it.This is the first important role for Leung Ka-fai,whose role in this film is completely different from his later roles in these crime films,but his partnership with Chow Yun-fat is like Ying and Yang,well balanced in the film.

Till today,Prison on Fire is still considered as an excellent prison allegory that moves people,and director Ringo Lam will forever remembered for his realistic approach he uses to shoot the film.

If interested,you can watch the film on youtube video in HD with English subs below:

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