School on Fire

School on Fire ★★★½

Ringo Lam paints society as a hierarchical hell characterized by male power jockeying and female enslavement. Everyone has their place in the meat grinder, and acquiring and keeping your power is in direct relation to your capacity and penchant for cruelty. Through this world youth hurtle towards a cynical, soured, and jaundice future, disabused of any ambition but the surviving or doling out of abuse itself.

But also, it’s a little silly. I mean that in a good way.

I’m not the first to bring up Tsui Hark’s ‘Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind’ here, but 'School on Fire' - made eight years later - is reaching for that same chaotic rampaging energy. ‘School on Fire’ doesn’t connect as often as ‘Encounters’ does for me, but that’s what Lam is going for. And maybe the slight disconnect is because Lam has a bigger ambition, a wider statement he wants to make about his own culture. But he just can’t keep himself from tossing his theme and substance out the window in favor of aggrandizing hyper violence. Now don’t get me wrong, I love me some hyper-violence, and 'Dangerous Encounters' is drenched in hyper-violence, but here it ends up making the social message a bit reductionist.

While not a martial arts film, and much closer to a Second Wave HK NW product (not that the HK New Wave didn’t infect martial cinema - it absolutely did) the insane physical nature of populist Hong Kong entertainment is still in full effect. The violence is meant to be both grounded and stylized. Eruptive and shocking, but I just as often found it more of a laughable good time watching stunt people do their thing than really reading it as the end result of a social nightmare. Fortunately, I love watching stunt people go all in.

A soundtrack built of prog synths and bagpipes dresses up female histrionics that manifest in insane motorcycle suicide runs and literally “burning it down”; while Male egos are in turn driven teeth-gnashingly mad by the ten thousand pound weight of socio-cultural conditioning. All are kindle for the fire of unchecked, unregulated capitalism.

The movie generates an atmosphere that leans on economically stressed, crowded, late 80’s Hong Kong streets but, as labored above, does not shed its exploitation tendencies, creating the sheen of social realism over the theatrics of overworked Shakespeare.

This grimy side-eyed social messaging is only made even better by the Frankenstein version that I watched, cobbled together from different sources, alternating between a decent enough scan of a solid print that has been patch worked together with clips from a shoddy VHS rip so that it unspooled before my lizard brain like some kind of long unpolished sooty artifact. (This too is true of the only version of ‘Dangerous Encounters’ that is viewable in North America right now.)

I am a little surprised other people don’t find this quite as a silly and fun as I do, so I should probably rethink my position on that. Fennie Yuen was amazing. Good flick.

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