Rewind, film: Prison on Fire, directed by Ringo Lam (1987)

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 November, 2014, 8:27pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 November, 2014, 8:27pm

Prison on Fire
Chow Yun-fat, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Roy Cheung Yiu-yeung
Director: Ringo Lam Ling-tung

Prison on Fire opens with a shot of Victoria Harbour: a brief glimpse of water, open sky and towering buildings. By the next scene, this sense of freedom and possibility is gone, replaced by a bus heading to a prison.

It is summer and the day the protagonist of the film, Lo Ka-yiu (Tony Leung Ka-fai) - a mild-mannered designer for an advertising agency - becomes inmate 51910. Lo looks out of place in the intake area. He is wearing a light blue suit, sporting glasses and floppy hair, and with abject terror in his eyes. The other men waiting with him are dressed casually; they have tattoos and a been-there-done-this attitude.

A flashback reveals why Lo is in prison: a group of thugs attacked his father and when he tried to stop the culprits, he accidentally knocked one of the men onto the street and into the path of a vehicle. He was charged with manslaughter and handed a three-year sentence.

The nature of the incident casts Lo as an everyman, unfairly punished by the system, and forced to live in confinement away from his girlfriend, among triad members, violent criminals and psychopaths.

Enter Chung Tin-ching, played in the most charismatic fashion by Chow Yun-fat. In his first scene, he hobbles up a set of stairs, leg in a cast, singing at the top of his lungs. Chung has prison life figured out: he knows how to bargain and cajole, and even when to grovel just enough to allow a violent inmate to save face.

Though they do not get on at first, Chung and Lo form a strong bond over the course of three years. Their relationship is full of tough and tender moments.

At the heart of Prison on Fire is a story about friendship - after all, most jailhouse films are really just buddy flicks staged in an unappealing setting. The pair's most dangerous adversary is the young guard Hung (Roy Cheung) who wields more power than any triad boss in the cellblock.

Director Ringo Lam ( City on Fire, Full Alert), who first met Chow at an acting programme, does a masterful job of transforming character into action. One moment, two prisoners are whispering together. Next, the guards get involved, making matters worse. As the tension builds, and the fighting escalates, there is only one possible climax: a tremendous riot scene, which lives up to expectation.

Prison on Fire ends with another shot of Victoria Harbour. It could be the very same shot, but somehow it feels as if we are seeing it from a farther vantage point.

Maybe it's because our view has become more expansive after a period of forced confinement.