Serving three years in prison for an unfortunate manslaughter beef, mild-mannered Yiu (Tony Leung Ka-fai) must part with his loving parents and unassuming bride-to-be and harden up should he intend to survive in the slammer. Ill-equipped by way of demeanor, the going gets rough early on and frequently until the arrival of Ching (Chow Yun-Fat) – a wisecracking hothead that reluctantly takes Yiu under his wing. As their bond strengthens amid continued adversity, the contributed tension a la prison officials and violent fellow inmates transforms their established co-dependence into a mortal necessity.
In emulating its predecessor’s effective slow burn, Prison on Fire is a film steeped largely in arbitrary exposition, intermittent conflict and a latter act blowup that remains more gratifying than not. All of the standard prison drama tropes remain front-and-center – amenity smuggling, brutish two-faced gang members, oppressive authoritarian guards – yet they don’t render the proceedings forgettable. This is largely due to the breezily sustained charisma of and chemistry between the film’s leads, their interplay competently segueing into a palpably meaningful relationship between the two.
With Ching remaining the unfailingly naive Yiu’s sole lifeline, the latter’s ignorance toward conformity isn’t so much grating as it is an effectively hopeful impetus. His resolve crumbles as you’d expect it would, as does Ching’s, and it’s with these moments that the film largely becomes one of perseverance for the sake of the ones you love on the outside. Character moments aside, Prison on Fire thrives mostly in the vein of what Lam does best in the vein of the increasingly riotous. From an initial incident in the yard to the climactic no-holds-barred barracks blowout, the film’s outwardly familiar theme of brotherhood laces these moments with an extra dimension that makes you hope Yiu and Ching will pull through prior to a predictably bittersweet conclusion.
To Shed Blood, Heroically is a detailed account of my foray into Hong Kong action cinema with a focus on the rapidly popularized heroic bloodshed subgenre of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Check out my other reviews here.