School on Fire

School on Fire ★★★★½

Watched with THE COLLAB, the club that never watches the same kind of movie two weeks in a row. Guaranteed.

The third entry in Ringo Lam's very loose ON FIRE series, which began with CITY ON FIRE, continued with PRISON ON FIRE (the only one to spawn a direct sequel), and then this, the grimmest of the lot and heaviest with its social critique, SCHOOL ON FIRE.*

Similar in its look at modern youth to what Tsui Hark had done with 1980's DANGEROUS ENCOUNTERS OF THE FIRST KIND, but where Hark focused on the seeming nihilism on youth culture, SCHOOL ON FIRE much more keenly targets how society itself sets youth up to fail, and be victimized: by gangs, authorieties, parents, faculty, and even other kids. Those with the fewest scruples and self-awareness win. Those with a conscience will be warned until they put said conscience to the side.

The filmmaking here is stark and grounded - mostly natural lighting, sets that truly reflect the cramped life of the lower middle-class in Hong Kong, a "triad" gang that has an element of realism to it, as they're just a bunch of hot headed guys with connections, calling them "organized" crime would be pushing it. The cops, in fact, tend to enforce more of the organization of the gangs than the gangs do themselves, all the better to contain and control the damage as well as share in the spoils.

Veterans like Roy Cheung, Lam Ching-ying, and Damian Lau are joined by a young cast of relative newcomers like Fennie Yuen and Sarah Lee (and anyone who hasn't seen Sarah's insane action work in Corey Yuen's SHE SHOOTS STRAIGHT is in for a treat!), all of whom went on to make a number of HK films throughout the 90's. The performances are natural and absolutely absorbing. You believe the suffering of these characters, their cicumstances, their desperation, their insane sens of entitlement, all of it. It's all believable, even when the event on screen lean toward the unbelievable.

This is a hevay drama with brieft moments of stunning spectacle. The stuntwork on display instantly remind you why the 80's were called the "Golden Age" for HK cinema. No one does these scenes like HK stuntmen did. It's jaw dropping and it's almost beside the point. Though I will say: HK stuntmen being able to make every single moment seem visceral AF really works for drama. I mean, it's fucking DRAMATIC!

The whole film is about how society is a power game - those who have it lord it over the rest. Even the teachers, largely, essentialize every encounter into an excuse to showcase their power over the kids. It's not about helping anybody, it's only about what you can do to damage another. Who you have to use as a sacrifice. As a scapegoat. As a target for your sense of helplessness and rage.

SCHOOL ON FIRE was originally censored, with only mutliple, heavily edited versions floating about. The version I watched was a compliation of two different sources of different quality, spliced together. No idea if this means it was close to uncut (it was 107.5 minutes) but it was very, very good. I recommend tracking down the longest cut you can find. The filmmaking in bar none, and the more the merrier.

*It should be noted there is yet one more, sort-of entry in this series, director Chu Yen-ping's rip-off attempt ISLAND OF FIRE, which scored the insane all-star cast of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Andy Lau, Jimmy Wang Yu, and Tony Leung. And while a total cash-in on Ringo Lam's ON FIRE flicks, especially Prison on Fire, it's unquestionably the best film Chu ever made, and worth seeking out.

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