Review: SCHOOL ON FIRE 學校風雲 (1988) | Casey's Movie Mania | Movie Reviews, Features & Others

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Review: SCHOOL ON FIRE 學校風雲 (1988)

Review: SCHOOL ON FIRE 學校風雲 (1988)

When high-school student Chu Yuen-Fong (Fennie Yuen) witnesses a triad beating in the busy street that claimed the life of an unfortunate male student, she faces a lot of pressures from the cops, Hoi (Lam Ching-Ying) and Chuen Ngor (Tommy Wong), his teacher Mr. Wan (Damian Lau) and especially a notorious triad boss Brother Smart (Roy Cheung) who particularly threatens her not to report the incident or suffers terrible consequence. However, Fong ends up testifying anyway which prompted Brother Smart to terrorise her into paying an HK$30,000 legal fee -- which is actually a protection fee. Her best friend Sandy (Sarah Lee) offers help by giving her some money and even hook her up with Brother Scar (Terrence Fok), who falls in love with her immediately for the first time. Unfortunately, tension starts to escalate from bad to worse where everything eventually turns into a full-blown nightmare.

REVIEW: During the late 1980s, Hong Kong director Ringo Lam was on top of the world with two of his "On Fire" trilogy: PRISON ON FIRE and CITY ON FIRE (both released in 1987). But his third and final "On Fire" trilogy, SCHOOL ON FIRE was greeted with muted response back in 1988. It was such a miserable flop that it only ran a one-week theatrical run and quickly fizzled out at the Hong Kong box office. However, I must say this hugely underrated SCHOOL ON FIRE is surprisingly ranked as Ringo Lam's finest cinematic masterpiece ever made. Never before I've seen a Hong Kong's high-school gangster drama so engrossing, yet so remarkably intense that you can almost feel the heat ignited throughout the movie. 

While I believe some viewers might question the authenticity that Lam depicted the harsh reality of a high school in Hong Kong, SCHOOL ON FIRE remains an unflinching experience to watch for. Likewise, Lam's direction is gritty in the style of a docudrama, while he certainly knows how to pace the movie so perfectly that there is no single frame wasted with unnecessary fillers.

Meanwhile, Nam Yin's script is compelling. Everything in this movie is presented in a pessimistic view where the world is full of grim and despair. Even the large depiction of triads here are not glamorised or romanticised in the way of other Hong Kong filmmakers would do (say, someone like John Woo). Instead, the triads are depicted as capitalists where they are so powerful to the point they even ruled over the school system. Teachers and parents are portrayed as ineffective individuals who can't do much to protect their own children (which of course, the students), while the cops are just as hopeless.

The young cast is all top-notch. Fennie Yuen delivers a breakthrough performance as an ordinary student who subsequently forced to sink deep into a hellhole, while Sarah Lee is similarly engaging as the doomed Sandy. Tse Wai-Kit is particularly despicable as George Chow, a gangster student who always looking for trouble. Even the adult ones are equally strong. Roy Cheung is typically intense as the triad boss, Brother Smart while it's nice to see both Lam Ching-Ying and Damian Lau in unfamiliar, yet perfectly restrained roles (as both of them are usually known for their martial art roles).

All the technical credits are ace -- Joe Chan's vivid cinematography matches perfectly with Lam's constantly restless cameraworks; Tony Chow's editing is airtight while Lau Chi-Ho and Joe Chu's action choreography are intensely staged with such claustrophobic manner where the depiction of violence are meant to be as brutal and provoking as it gets (especially the all-hell-breaks-loose graphic finale).

Ringo Lam's little-seen SCHOOL ON FIRE is surprisingly his most accomplished directorial effort to date: a compelling high-school gangster drama boosted with a top-notch cast all around.

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