School on Fire

School on Fire ★★★★½

In the 13 years between the Sino-British Joint Declaration (the treaty outlining the conditions in which Hong Kong would be transferred back to Chinese Control) and the 1997 Handover, many of the most important and crucial films to originate from the HK industry were released, addressing a population grappling with an economic resurgence in '78 and having to contend with striking disparities between poverty and wealth, often with injustice closely following the heels of those without power. Ringo Lam eventually made his mark as part of HK's New Wave, starting his career with a half-dozen-ish comedies as assignments to fund the material he wanted to film, and exploded onto the scene with his unconnected On Fire films, three films that explored a dark, brutal view of Hong Kong, presenting the unflinching reality of incompetent institutions and generational rage. School on Fire was the very last film in this thematic trilogy, and also suffered many cuts and edits in its theatrical release (a majority of which have been revised and rescued over the years, meaning its uncut release does circulate around the internet every now and then), yet it manages to excel in its dark atmosphere and its realistic violence, bluntly effective in its pessimistic depiction of blossoming human nature.

Chu Yuen Fong is a student forced to witness and become entangled with the triad gangsters inhabiting and terrorizing her school, forced to pay a debt after a violent murder occurs in her vicinity. Lam makes it abundantly clear that Chu has no-one she can turn to, as testifying to the crimes around her will only incite further death and violence to her and the people she knows, a hopeless scenario that sees her naivety punished and spiral deeper into madness, unable to escape this Hell as sexual threats are made towards her, loss becomes a recurring thing, and almost everyone with some sort of authority concern themselves with their own safety and monetary gain rather than doing something about this domestic nightmare (take George, the biggest asshole Triad student, and his constant threats of filing complaints and suing the school that everyone's defenseless at since his word can buy out everyone else's). Chu comes of age, but only through despair and impotent role models that causes one of the most bleak, self-destructive actions a student her age could cause, a fiery depression where the solution past the breaking point is to literally burn it all down.

Violence, as many know, is a common talking point among moral guardians, the question of whether we glamorize and sensationalize it to the point of accepting it as part of our real-life background. It's a bunk argument to begin with, but Lam takes none of that shit, using it only as the explosive end-result of rotten attitudes and purity crumbling at the hands of bleak worldviews. Power struggles are ones that happen in a flash, revenge only brings more trouble once things get deadly, the act of violence is never a pleasant or gratifying thing to witness if it means the well-being of maturing students can be so callously obliterated, and through this Lam layers on a raw, gritty texture to the already-grim world he's replicating, each fight, stab, and punch truly bone-crunching all the way to the haunting goriness and brutal human behavior saved up for the finale. Tensions erupt and it brings a level of empathy towards those trying to uphold any semblance of "good" despite the persistent failures of police and school institutions keeping a blind eye on these killers and sick symptoms of a society accepting hopelessness.

School on Fire is a slow-burner, but it truly provokes a damning and insightful social commentary on the state of Hong Kong at the time, the brutalness of its content putting firm bullet points on how fucked up humans with power and without morals can be on the streets, and what the hell is wrong if this is a reality many Hong Kong students in '88 likely faced. The version I watched reinstated many of the cuts from its original release, and while initially they seem like filler bits to save time for more showings, gradually they paint an even more engrossing picture of the corruption that's never enjoyable and yet essential in realizing what the problems are (rape, bloody stabbings, sexual torment, all with guided purpose on the damaging influence and control those with a capitalist mindset in their crime can enact). While I'm uncertain if anything else by Lam can rival the ballsy critiques on humanity's cruelty that this film presents, it's a hell of an introduction that will linger with me for awhile.

Part of the Collab Film Club

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