School on Fire

School on Fire ★★★★

1st Ringo Lam

What begins as something close to a Bret Easton Ellis version of Saved By the Bell turns into something far bleaker and more impassioned, a despairing howl against the rottenness of social corruption.

Lam is a filmmaker who comes after the first break in the Hong Kong New Wave, a movement that sought to inject social commentary into their works, something that had largely been missing from the Shaw Brothers films of the 60s and 70s. They also had far better understanding of the tenets of world cinema thanks to their time abroad; Tsui Hark was educated in Texas, Ann Hui in London, and foreign films were gradually imported into the colony. The resulting polyglottalism is what made Hong Kong cinema of the 80s so iconic, a rich seam of cinema both commercial and artistic. The reason for this rather long-winded introduction is to place Ringo Lam in something of a historical and production context, especially in relation to John Woo and Tsui Hark, the established masters of the Hong Kong action film of the 80s and early 90s.

Both are directors who focused on the balletic, stylish elements of violence, Hark's twinged with a sense of irony while Woo's infused with a deep strain of Christian seriousness. But no such sense of the aesthetic is present in School on Fire. The knife fights and physical assaults here are brutal and grimy, filmed in tight handheld closeups as bodies thrash about in savage motion. For a film that takes such a melodramatic tone to its drama, the violence is remarkably realistic. Lam's social interests are quite different to the Colonial frustrations of Hark; there's only one reference to the Handover in an early sequence, with the rest of the film being an angry screed against the general social systems of Hong Kong. Not only do the Triads get it in the neck (especially the obnoxious figure of Suave), but the police and especially schools.

This is the first year in something close to 35 years that my dad will not be teaching. After a long period being ground down by the unreasonable demands of the Conservative government and their useless attitude towards education (fuck Michael Gove), he took an early retirement and seems to be thoroughly enjoying his time off. He deserves it, considering the work he did. The teachers in School on Fire, bar one, are venal fools only interested in their position and drawing a salary. Depressingly, there are probably a number of teachers who enjoy the position for the tiny amount of power it gives them; I know of one individual training to be a teacher who looks forward to being able to shout at kids. They're a lousy human being besides that, but even if it was a joke it speaks volumes about them.

But yes, School on Fire is a nasty, angry film, but one made with incredible verve and intensity. Damn fine filmmaking.If you want more info on the Hong Kong New Wave, please consider reading the following pieces:


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