Ringo Lam, one of the most respected directors of Hong Kong cinema, makes his name known with this film that revolves around the lives of convicts in prison and their trials and tribulations.
Lo Ka-Yiu is an advertising manager serving a two-year sentence on an accidental manslaughter charge. He finds himself at odds with gangster Micky, who gets every opportunity to make Lo’s life a living hell. Eventually, Lo befriends Chung Tin-Ching, serving time for killing his unfaithful wife. Ching is friends with some of the more righteous gangsters in the prison, including Bill, Chiu Chow, and Snake.
When a fight in the laundry room causes Lo to finally snap, he accidentally cuts Ching in the middle of his madness and even nearly kills himself. Soon, it is revealed that prison guard Scarface is in cahoots with Micky although it is never proven. For a year, things become peaceful when Micky is transferred. When the gangster returns, he begins to start up again. That is, until prices for the prisoners’ goods are raised and they cannot afford it. They decide to protest by fasting, but when Micky sides with Scarface, the fire within Ching and the others begins to rage and internal prison war is imminent.
The title Prison on Fire is more of a subtext rather than a literal title. The “fire” of the title emerges describes the madness that eats the likes of newcomer Lo and veteran Ching as they find themselves involved with the corrupt prison system. For Lo, played by the great Tony Leung Ka-Fai, he goes as far as snapping and going after all in his way with a huge shard of glass in the middle of the film. Although he stands out as more of an outcast, his actions eventually earn the respect of the more righteous gangsters.
As for Ching, played by the always great to watch Chow Yun-Fat, he starts out as mild-mannered but due to the actions of the insane guard Scarface, played in an excellent and fearing performance by Roy Cheung, Ching eventually gets himself in the deep end, going as far as going Mike Tyson-like in the climatic fight scene.
What may freak some people out is that a scene that can be described as “homoerotic”, but shows the rise of happiness and respect between the prisoners. On the New Year, the prisoners dance as music is played, with Ching dancing with Lo in a slow motion sequence. While this may bring a sense of homoeroticism, it truly describes that despite the predicaments each prison is in, he knows that there will be no chaos and that he can live a peaceful existence even if for one day.
Prison on Fire is definitely one of the best prison dramas to come out of the 1980’s thanks to its driven performances by Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung Ka-Fai.
WFG RATING: A+
A Cinema City & Films Co. production. Director: Ringo Lam. Producer: Ringo Lam. Writer: Nam Yin. Cinematography: Cinema City Cinematography Unit, Lau Hung-Chuen, Joe Chan, Nico Wong,
Jingle Ma, and Cho Wai-Kei. Editing: Cinema City Editing Unit.
Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, William Ho, Roy Cheung, Tommy Wong, Victor Hon, Frankie Ng, Wong Man-Kwan, Joe Chu, Shing Fui-On.