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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
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 also 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
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.
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