Director: Christopher Sun
Cast: Justin Cheung, Gregory Wong, Deon Chung, Coffee Lam, Wong Kwong Leung, Anita Chui, Ho Kar Kui, Lam Suet, Ken Lo, Han Jin, Elvis Tsui, Patrick Keung, Liu Kai Chi, Tony Ho
Runtime: 1 hr 51 mins
Rating: M18 (Sexual Scenes)
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 28 May 2015
Synopsis: This is a story in jail. A story about learning a ‘new life’. Richard Yu, a typical fop, hits a passer-by when drink-driving and is sentenced to one year in jail. Contrary to what the outside world believes, life behind bars is not full of atrocity. Much to his surprise, it is a secluded world of its kind. This world has its own rules….
Because the only thing we knew before going into ‘Imprisoned: Survival Guide for Rich and Prodigal’ was that the creative team of ‘3D Sex and Zen’ and ‘Due West’ were behind it, we went in with just about the lowest of expectations. No offence to its lead actors Gregory Wong and Justin Cheung or its director Christopher Sun, but neither of those films were anything more than trashy, so you can’t quite blame us for thinking the same of their prison comedy-drama. True enough, their latest under producer Stephen Shiu Jr’s China 3D Entertainment amounts to little more than trash, but at least it is entertaining while it lasts.
Scripted by Sun, Mark Wu (of the trashy ‘Lan Kwai Fong’ franchise) and Shum Shek Yin, it portrays prison life from the perspective of a greenhorn named Nelson (Gregory Wong), who is sentenced to a year and a half after he runs over an elderly woman while drunk driving. Nelson isn’t just some random twenty-something year-old, but a pampered ‘富二代’whose mother (Candice Yu) dotes him with all the cash that he wants and the most costly defense lawyer that money can buy, so this is also really his coming-of-age story much as how National Service is for our Ah Boys to Men.
As we already know from Ringo Lam’s classic ‘Prison on Fire’ and its sequel, there is a whole microcosm behind prison walls, and for the benefit of us neophytes, Nelson gives us the full rundown just how it works. Beginning with the full body scan which used to be performed by hand but is now done by X-ray (though that machine has to break down just as Nelson steps through it), Nelson greets with wide-eyed horror the initiation for a fellow new inmate charged (though acquitted) of rape, sieving through soiled underpants while on laundry duty, and the terrible meals served by an unsympathetic cook (Lam Suet). Naturally, there is some degree of exaggeration in the ‘culture shock’ Nelson experiences, but hey Sun isn’t exactly aiming for authenticity here.
Instead of cash, cigarettes are the currency in prison, and a fair bit of the first half is spent detailing just how privileges are bought and bartered with cigarettes. It is through this trade that Nelson gets acquainted with his cell leader (and we don’t mean this in a religious context) Seatto (Wong Kwong Leung) and the latter’s trusty right-hand man Coyote (Philip Keung). It is also through that trade that he finds a buddy in Wu (Babyjohn Choi), a meek and subservient cellmate who walks with a limp and is often ridiculed by everyone else with the derogatory nickname ‘Cockroach’. And so, even though it isn’t like before, Nelson settles in rather comfortably within this world with its own set of rules and operatives.
That balance is however disrupted with the incarceration of Jack (Cheung), another ‘富二代’who is not just pampered but bastardly. A prologue establishes the enmity between them after Nelson ‘f**ks’ Jack’s girlfriend at a party in the latter’s house. Unlike Nelson however, Jack’s triad connections on the outside – his uncle is played by no less than Ng Chi-hung – help him secure ‘bodyguards’ on the inside, so that even behind bars, he gets to be an arrogant tyrant. Their mutual conflict however threatens to disrupt the entire social order of the place, but it is also through this baptism of fire that Nelson finds a father figure in Uncle Dat (Liu Kai Chi) and realises the folly of his past wilful hedonistic ways.
It is as predictable as it gets yes, and quite frankly, not as poignant as it makes itself out to be. In the first instance, it is hard to sympathetic with a caddish man-child who still lives off his mother and loses his girlfriend after mixing up the two letters he had asked a fellow cellmate to write for her and his other plaything, so we aren’t quite taken when he finally has a change of heart. Indeed, it is telling when we end up feeling much more for Uncle Dat when he relates just why he ended up in prison than we ever do at any point for Nelson. Truth be told, while this is Nelson’s story of imprisonment, it is his fellow prison mates who steal the show.
Besides Liu, Sun has assembled a veritable cast of veterans to join Gregory Wong. Those who recall ‘Prison on Fire’ will surely recognise Wong Kwong Leung as well as the recently deceased William Ho Ka-Kui, the latter in a bit role as a lackey whom Jack’s uncle asks to look after his nephew in prison. Other notable faces include Ken Lo Wai-Kwong as a prison warden, Elvis Tsui as his supervisor, Vincent Wan and Tony Ho as inmates tasked to insert ball bearings up Nelson’s penis after he loses a bet with Jack, and Yuen Qiu as a politician who pays a surprise visit to the prison but is subsequently humiliated by one of the inmates. This is through and through a Hong Kong film in terms of casting, and a true ensemble at that.
Thanks to the supporting cast of notables, ‘Imprisoned’ feels like a sequel of sorts to ‘Prison on Fire’, though a much poorer cousin of course. In spirit, it is a nice throwback to the prison dramas of the 80s and 90s, notwithstanding that Gregory Wong is no Chow Yun-Fat. And while it never presents itself anywhere near as compelling, there is still trashy fun to be had inside this microcosm of prison life, which also moves at a brisk clip despite its almost two-hour runtime. Like we said at the start, we weren’t expecting much to begin with, and perhaps that’s key to appreciating the cruder pleasures that ‘Imprisoned’ affords. It won’t be a classic anytime soon, but by giving a reverential nod to the classic Ringo Lam film right at the start, it’s got its heart in the right place.
(It's no 'Prison on Fire', but this earnest throwback to the prison dramas of the 80s and 90s is trashily entertaining for what it is worth)
Review by Gabriel Chong