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Theme Tuesday - Ringo Lam - School on Fire (1988)

For February 2019, I will be exploring the works of Hong Kong action director and master Ringo Lam, who passed away last year.


While the two movies of Lam’s that I had seen before took place in worlds where it was reasonable to expect danger (the criminal underworld and prison), School on Fire is perhaps one of the most realistic in that young people in neighborhoods outside the purview of “respectable” civilization face violence on a regular basis. Chu Yuen-Fong, a schoolgirl, testifies in a triad-related killing against the advice of her peers. Her noble deed only brings almost a farcical amount of trouble, as she is kidnapped and threatened with sexual violence and her friends around her suffer.

The film expresses a great anxiety about the breakdown of cultural norms due to gang violence. There are so many instances of the triad’s abusing their power even within safe spaces that it gives the whole film a paranoid feel. One example with a young triad who is still a high school student is particularly worrisome for older people as he defies and even hits his teacher in a classroom full of his peers. The violence and subservient status of women in this world does not go unnoticed. A friend of Yuen-Fong’s trades sexual favors to protect Yuen-Fong from triad retaliation although her sacrifice is quickly rendered meaningless since Yuen-Fong still is in the thrall of the gang.

The movie is quite bleak and has much less of the desire to entertain or thrill than either of Lam’s previous movies that I had seen. It plays more like a tale of horror than an action movie, especially in its subjugation of the young female protagonist to horrors far beyond her power and maturity to handle. Honestly, this was the part of the movie I found worrisome and problematic, even if it could be seen as accurate. Women have virtually no agency in Lam’s movies as far as I can see. They mainly exist to give men a motivation to get out of their own circumstances or to give men the reason to exact revenge.

The fact that Yuen-Fong is so powerless for most of the movie is pretty discouraging. One could possibly read it as Lam’s own commentary on the status of women, but nothing in his work so far really lends to that reading. Her final act of violence of burning the school down, however, could be seen as her finally being granted energy though it could also be seen as Lam pointing out how her circumstances have corrupted her and made her someone who believes violence is the only recourse.

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