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Film Review: King of Prison (2020) by Kang Tae-ho

King of Prison still
“King of Prison” is an unusual prison film, which combines drama, action and comedy in a realistic package

Usually in prison films, there is a level of exotification, which moves towards violence in the case of the male ones and sex for the female ones. As such, it is always interesting to watch films that take a more realistic approach, with “King of Prison”, although not completely void of crowd-pleasing elements, definitely following this path.

“King of Prison” is available from Echelon Studios

The story is presented through the perspective of Lee Man-hee, a 28-year-old man who becomes a member of a violent crimes cell, after getting caught up in a violent incident. In his cell, he meets the King of the Prison, Beom Teol, who is actually a former gang member in his 50s, who only uses violence when someone from the cell is bullied or in order to break up fights, while frequently giving legal advice to whoever needs it. Wal-Wal, another man his age, is a true character, who is infamous of how much his excrement smells, while the ‘cell ‘room' also fosters an older guy who was convicted as sexual offender and frequently makes others laugh with his absurd stories, among a number of other ‘characters'.

In general, things go smoothly in the whole prison, until a true kingpin, Jeong Tae-soo is admitted, and decides to take over the role of the King, with the help of the warden. After a series of failed attempts against Beom Teol, he decides to bring in KTX from isolation, a convict who seems to be as good in fighting as Beom-teol.

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Although there is the occasional fighting throughout, and a finale that moves in the particular path, Kang Tae-ho's effort mostly focuses on portraying life inside the prison, which is actually dominated by boredom instead of danger. Beom Teol is one of the main sources of this approach, since both in terms of appearance (essentially a middle-aged man with a mustache) and overall demeanor move towards the particular direction, with him rarely actually fighting.

The way even the most insignificant treats of the outside worlds are treated as valuables inside adds another level in the same direction, with the same applying to drugs, homosexuality and sexual release. Particularly the last aspect offers one of the most realistic scenes, with Wal-Wal's interaction with his visiting wife, and his requests, highlighting the fact in the most eloquent fashion. The friendship Man-hee strikes with another prisoner his age, although with some homosexual connotations, is in the same path. Lastly, the way corruption works inside, through the cooperation with the employees of the prison, cements this approach.

Granted, occasionally the film goes too far, particularly regarding the presentation of defecation, which eventually even becomes part of the action, but in general, the approach is grounded.

Regarding the action scenes, the fact that the main protagonist is a middle aged man does restrict it somewhat, although the fact that the impressive throughout exhibits a sense of danger with every move definitely helps. In general, the whole thing is slow, while the showdown with KFC could definitely have been handled better. On the other hand, one could say that this approach also follows the overall realistic one.

Apart from Lee Sol-gu, the ones who steal the show are as Wai-wai, the main source of comedy here, and who portrays a truly sinister villain as Tae-soo. Kim Min as KTX is both good in the fighting scenes and the humorous ones. The cinematography again focuses on realism, without particular exaltations in terms of visuals, while the editing could have been handled a bit better, at least in terms of pacing. It does not harm the film significantly though.

“King of Prison” is an unusual prison film, which combines drama, action and comedy in a realistic package definitely deserving a watch.

About the author

Panos Kotzathanasis

Panagiotis (Panos) Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer, specialized in Asian Cinema. He is the owner and administrator of Asian Movie Pulse, one of the biggest portals dealing with Asian cinema. He is a frequent writer in Hancinema, Taste of Cinema, and his texts can be found in a number of other publications including SIRP in Estonia, in Slovakia, Asian Dialogue in the UK, Cinefil in Japan and Filmbuff in India.

Since 2019, he cooperates with Thessaloniki Cinematheque in Greece, curating various tributes to Asian cinema. He has participated, with video recordings and text, on a number of Asian movie releases, for Spectrum, Dekanalog and Error 4444. He has taken part as an expert on the Erasmus+ program, “Asian Cinema Education”, on the Asian Cinema Education International Journalism and Film Criticism Course.

Apart from a member of FIPRESCI and the Greek Cinema Critics Association, he is also a member of NETPAC, the Hellenic Film Academy and the Online Film Critics Association.

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