Hong Kong films that have the prison system as their main theme are a rarity in the local cinema, particularly if we exclude the CAT III ones. “With Prisoners”, which is loosely based on a true story (Mak Yee Ma’s incarceration, who actually plays in the movie), is one of those rarities.
Fan, a young man and an aspiring thug who works as a bouncer in a bar, ends up in juvenile prison (for men aged 14-25), after a brawl with an off-duty cop who was mishandling his girlfriend. In there, he finds out that the military discipline is extended to all aspects of everyday life, including the hours in the courtyard and the meals, while the hazing is utterly brutal. The prisoners are frequently cursed and beaten by the guards, for the smallest of reasons, and they even have to scrub toilets with their bare hands. amonmg a number of other tortures. While most of the guards, headed by veteran Gwai, have adopted these tactics, Ho, one of the newest members, is actually there to help prisoners rehabilitate, in a practice that has him at odds with most of his fellow officers. Ho’s story is actually a second axis for the film, as his personal life, and particularly his troubles with his girlfriend, due to his work, are also explored. Lastly, Sharpie, an inmate who shares Fan’s cell, is actually in prison to exact revenge.
Andrew Wong Kwok-huen in his debut directs a film that functions as a very harsh critique of the correctional facilities in the country, particularly the ones for juvenile offenders, which are considered (as stated in the movie) much worse than those for the adults are. In that fashion, the circumstances are truly hellish, which leads many of the convicts to despair and even suicide, despite the relatively small time of incarceration (a few months). The correctional officers are portrayed as true villains, who repeatedly state that they consider the inmates scum with no chance of rehabilitation, thus justifying their despicable behaviour, at least to themselves.
Lee Kwok-lun plays the role of Gwai, the worst of them, to perfection, highlighting his character’s sadistic nature in the most elaborate way. Kelvin Kwan is also quite persuasive as the good cop Ho, while Neo Yau is impressive as Fan, with his breaking and subsequent transformation being the highlight of his performance and of the film.
Wong makes a point of showing the impact this kind of rehabilitation has on the inmates, but due to the ending of the film, his opinion is somewhat lost. He could mean that the harshest punishment is the only way to change one completely or he could also mean that if one sets his mind on changing himself, he can accomplish it, with some help from the people who love him.
The scenes in the prison are particularly strong and meaningful, with Lau Tsz-kin’s cinematography building a claustrophobic environment, in perfect harmony with the film’s aesthetics. On the other hand, the part about Ho and his personal life is not well examined or presented, and actually seems a bit out of context, while I also felt that Wong rushed in the introduction of the story, until Fan is imprisoned. Lastly, some sequences that border on sentimentalism, particularly through the use of melancholic ballads and music video aesthetics, also detract from the general feeling of the movie. Tony Chan and Alan ho try their best to retain a balance with their editing of the different sequences, and succeed for the most part, despite the aforementioned issues. However, since the majority of the movie focuses in the harsh circumstances in the prison, the above faults are minor, and the central point of the story is quite well communicated, with the interviews in the ending of the movie definitely helping in that aspect.
“With Prisoners” has its faults, but is a more than promising debut by a director who seems to be a part of a wave of change that recently has started in Hong Kong cinema.