'With Prisoners': Film Review

Courtesy of Bravos Pictures
Kids, stay in school.

Emerging actors Neo Yau and Kelvin Kwan co-star with real-life young offenders in Wong Kwok Kuen’s exploration of Hong Kong’s justice system.

Will a vigorous and occasionally abusive boot camp reform a budding Hong Kong gangster of his criminal ways or simply be a stint at an abusive boot camp? That’s the central question in debuting director Wong Kwok Kuen’s awkwardly titled juvie hall drama, With Prisoners. At times visually arresting and intellectually engaging, Wong too often hijacks himself by shoehorning in some stunted backstory and making random, questionable creative choices. With Prisoners is nonetheless compulsively watchable and possibly enlightening for anyone who sees Hong Kong’s corrections infrastructure as innocuous due to its lack of clickbait headlines.

With Prisoners is the latest in a long tradition of prison dramas that focus on abuses by the system rather than exciting breakouts, like Alan Clarke’s Scum, Hector Babenco’s Pixote and local filmmaker Herman Yau’s From the Queen to the Chief Executive. Loosely based on a true story — co-star Mak Yee Ma’s incarceration to be precise — the story pivots on a wannabe triad getting sentenced to one of the Hong Kong justice system’s so-called “short sharp shock” rehabilitation programs. A general rising awareness and interest in the region of crime, punishment and institutional corruption should put the film on Asia-Pacific film festival radars, as well as any around the world where the event’s themes and content are a complement. Asia-focused events will also check it out.

After a bar brawl with an off-duty cop, aspiring thug Fan (Neo Yau, Fire Lee’s gonzo Robbery) is sentenced to three months in juvenile detention like Hong Kong’s Sha Tsui Detention Center, which practices military-style rehabilitation. Insults and abuse are core tenets of the treatment, carried out by the bored, jaded staff, where an occasional true believer lingers among the guards. Whether the administration is willfully blind to the abuse and inhumane punishments — Fan is forced to clean a toilet and his teeth with his fingers, roll call involves full declaration of name, number and crime, the only way to address staff is by hollering "Sorry, Sir" — or in support of it is moot: It’s going to happen anyway. Fan’s only there a few days before he tries to hang himself.

Sharing a cell with Fan is Sharpie (Mak), a long-term inmate on a mission to get revenge for a friend’s murder (called a suicide officially) in custody but who counsels Fan to tow the line and get a legitimate release as soon as he can. Sharpie is that most recognizable of wise mentor characters, but non-professional Mak (a reformed offender) perhaps not surprisingly, brings an understated veracity to the character that leaches out into the entire film. Also in the cell is Sing (Sham Ka Ki), whose sweet nature makes him a target in grand prison movie tradition.

On the other side of the law is Ho (Kelvin Kwan, The Moment), a firm believer in second chances that plays the badass guard game on the surface, but is at the prison to actually help the kids in his care. His wife Samantha (Kwok Yik Sum, Lazy Hazy Crazy) is herself a recovering addict, and Ho is the butt of constant jokes by other guards over his bleeding heart and hopeless optimism. Among them is (naturally) the cranky, sadistic veteran Gwai (Lee Kwok Lun), whose cruelty seems limitless and random, but who sheds his work skin effortlessly.

When Wong and co-writer Wong Chi-pong concentrate on Fan and Ko’s tricky relationship and the daily humiliations the young prisoners must endure, With Prisoners is at its most compelling, with a documentary tone and cast of real-life convicts filling out the minor roles. Yau and Kwan do a nice job of moving from default adversaries to grudging quasi-friends, and it never feels forced or inauthentic; there’s an appropriate awkwardness between them that never really dissolves. With the exception of Lee’s Gwai, the rest of the guards don’t get to do much other than conspire and sneer.

With Prisoners’ story is in its title, and so when the film floats to Ko and Samantha’s marriage, it grinds to a near-halt and starts to sag. Their story is another movie in itself but is bland enough here to raise questions of why editors Tony Chan and Alan Ho allotted so much space to their anemic relationship (which could have gone to the sneering guards). Lau Tsz Kin’s gritty, saturated photography adds a nightmare quality to the action, but the random changes in speed and format feel gimmicky.

Production company: Times Production
Cast: Kelvin Kwan, Neo Yau, Mak Yee Ma, Sham Ka Ki, Lee Kwok Lun, Raymond Chiu, Kimi Chiu, Edward Chui, Gill Mohindepaul Singh, Amy Tam, Kwok Yik Sum
Director: Wong Kwok Kuen
Screenwriter: Wong Chi-pong, Wong Kwok Kuen
Producer: Tony Leung Hung Wah
Executive producer: Daniel Chan
Director of photography: Lau Tsz Kin
Production designer: Leung Kar Yun
Editor: Tony Chan, Alan Ho
Hanz Au Lok Hang
World sales: Bravos Pictures

In Cantonese
100 minutes