Chinese language cinema

Film review: Imprisoned - a warm, humorous take on material world

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 May, 2015, 11:29pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 May, 2015, 11:29pm

This is a double warning to the prudish: Imprisoned: Survival Guide for Rich and Prodigal is directed by Christopher Sun Lap-key (of the notorious 3D sexploitation flick Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy), and it marks the third big-screen adaptation of fiction serialised on the popular web portal Hong Kong Golden Forum — after 2012's Due West: Our Sex Journey and 2014's The Midnight After.

Nelson Yu (Gregory Wong Chung-yiu) is a thirty-something prodigal son who leads a decadent life fuelled by sex, drugs and fast cars. When he is handed an 18-month sentence for reckless driving on a drunken night out, the spoiled brat is forced to re-evaluate his values inside Stanley Prison — or maybe not.

Peppered with cheeky humour that occasionally subverts conventional wisdom, Imprisoned presents a "civilised" world that is run on a materialistic system — albeit with cigarettes, not money. Even the prison guards, the faces of totalitarianism usually, stay out of the conflicts.

The ward assigned to Nelson is regulated by the quasi-leader Szeto (Tommy Wong Kwong-leung) who, while observing the custom of beating up sex offenders, isn't much of a bully himself. Upon figuring out prison life, the new inmate also finds a true friend in the drug addict Ng Jai (Babyjohn Choi Hon-yick) and a father figure in the Bible-quoting long-term prisoner Uncle Dat (Liu Kai-chi).

All this lends an improbably warm feeling to the proceedings, especially as both Choi and Liu give great substance to their parts. In the absence of full-blown riots, the only menace here revolves around the violent gangster Jack (Justin Cheung Kin-sing, who put on much weight for the role), who has held a deadly grudge since Nelson inadvertently slept with his girlfriend at a house party months earlier.

The theme of friendship otherwise looms large in this jokey homage to the two iconic Prison on Fire movies from 1987 and 1991, trading the in tense action in Ringo Lam Ling-tung's classics for an unexpected touch of humanity. Indeed, a scene in which Nelson receives a surprise birthday party from his fellow inmates is so sweet it almost breaks the sarcastic tone of the film.

At times riddled with newly invented slang words that have made such a revered hotbed for geeky subcultures, this isn't above the forum's penchant for snarky sociopolitical comments or its casual misogynist attitude. But in spite of its esoteric verbiage, Imprisoned is still very much a heartfelt production that should find its place in Hong Kong's stagnant prison movie tradition.

Imprisoned: Survival Guide for Rich and Prodigal opens on May 28