School on Fire

School on Fire ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Translation of the epilogue in case anyone couldn't find it:
- Hohua (AKA Scar) was charged for having sex with a minor and assault with a weapon. Sentenced to 7 years in prison
- Lau Yong (AKA Sa-Pei or Sand Skin) was arrested two weeks later at Shenzhen, charged with murder, and given the death penalty
- Wan was freed without any punishment, as he acted in self defense
- Yuen Fang was charged with assault with a weapon, but she was also a victim. She was sentenced to two years in prison with delayed enforcement. She can continue her education

(Shout out to my dad for translating!)

The titular school of Ringo Lam’s School on Fire is drab and gray. Planes fly close overhead and linger in the frame, the sole reminders of a world outside the cramped community our protagonists inhabit. An early shot pans past “中學” - middle school - each character given pride of place in a white sign with an indistinct red border not unlike blood. It’s an appropriate visual— violence surrounding and pushing against the trappings of a functional society.

It’s bizarre to watch the explosive destruction of the triads interact with the rules of the school classroom. This film quickly reveals school to be a flimsy veneer of civility over the unrestrained churn of brutality. In an instant, the authority of teachers can be overturned, desks fashioned into weapons, and library books into literal kindling. It feels absurd, like watching lightning strike a kiddie pool, because the people wielding machetes and playing politics are children. It makes me long for authority figures, only to realize that in this world, authority as we understand it - parents, teachers, principles - is a farce.

Once the structure of a single school begins to break down, you see the decay everywhere— an insidious mold barely hidden beneath shoddily constructed shelters. Restaurants are filled with tea sets waiting to be destroyed. Delicate birds in cages become yet another note in the music of violence. In a world where might makes right, everyone is brought to their basest level. Policemen, a schoolteacher, a father, a friend— all must become violent to enact their will. Is there another path?

If there is, it’s hard to see and harder to walk. Yuen Fong’s descent into violence illustrates the dangerous gravitational force of destruction. Brother Scar’s crush seems like a schoolboy infatuation, until it precipitates a chaotic downward spiral with outsized consequences. We get a last glimpse of Yuen Fong’s old life - clearing the dinner table of school books, a ritual of calm family domesticity - to understand how fragile that life is. Soon, triads pull Yuen Fong out from the safety of her home and threaten her. The scales of her life begin to tip away from school and towards the triads, drawn downward by a magnetism she can’t hope to counteract.

Yuen Fong is collateral. No matter how hard she struggles, life is something that happens to her, a burden thrust upon her by the small few who do who have power and choose to wield it cruelly. However, School on Fire resists the urge to make Yuen Fong a passive victim. She pushes constantly against what’s happening to her, often literally struggling against people holding her back from fighting.

This makes for a strong portrayal of how inexorable the violence that surrounds her is— Yuen Fong is not a weak-willed idiot who should have resisted more. No matter how strong you are, once you’re caught in the whirlpool of the triads, the current becomes unbreakable. This is why Yuen Fong’s father’s pleas for her to be a “good girl” and “study hard” ring hollow; the odds are stacked against Yuen Fong in ways that go beyond his willing comprehension.

School on Fire is a microcosm of a society that’s cannibalizing itself. It’s fitting that one of the final shots of the film fulfills the prophecy of the first, blood spilling dramatically over the middle school’s walls. This is a world where every child gets an education in violence, and while its characters aren’t always fully compelling, School on Fire builds such a clear view of the domino chain of violence that it’s hard not to be sucked in, propelled by rage from one domino to the next until the whole thing burns to the ground.

Reviewed as part of the Collab!

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