School on Fire

School on Fire ★★★

COLLAB FILM CLUB

I must admit, I haven’t seen too many Hong Kong triad films and none from the 1980s when the genre became popular. Gangster/action films are not my first choice. This one in particular was quite dark in its theme and the violence was frequent and brutal. At first, I was a little confused by the plot but it got clearer over time.

Here goes: the triads pretty much rule the streets and intimidate the local working folk, with the police basically ineffective. They are now infiltrating the local high school, with boys and girls being recruited to do the lower-level dirty work. A young girl Chu Yuen Fong (Fennie Yuen) is dating a triad member and gets caught between the gang and the police.

I was struck by how crowded, cramped and chaotic the city is presented, and the threat of violence is always present - in the streets, police stations, classrooms, even the hospitals. Everyone seems resigned to the status quo, and the citizens directly express their frustration with the police. The teachers are also largely ineffective and passive.

There are only a few holdouts who try to keep some integrity - the schoolgirl, a nerdy but principled teacher at the school Mr. Wan, and to some extent the schoolgirl’s boyfriend, Scar who shows a little compassion even though caught up in the gang’s web. The triad leader Brother Smart (played by Roy Cheung) is mean and sadistic, slapping women and killing birds by smashing them against a wall.

The story is deeply pessimistic and brutal. I kinda longed for some occasional humor or romance as a respite. In one violent fight scene in a nightclub, there are occasional paradoxical shots of a serene Buddha statue in a nook with incense, again just witnessing the chaos. Near the end I got a kick out of the nerdy Mr. Wan finally stepping up to confront Brother Smart, saying “Do you remember what you said once, asshole? ‘On the outside, I’m the boss’. But in school, I’m the boss” as he pummels him.

Again, not my favorite genre but I can appreciate Ringo Lam’s direction and focus here. Also his rage. He apparently made two other “on fire” films - “City on Fire” and “Prison on Fire”. My main complaint is that, in every scene with confrontation, each character basically screams or shouts their lines at one another. It frankly wore me down. And so very different from American gangster and noir films where the threats are sometimes quietly chilling. But I guess nuance isn’t a big feature here.

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