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[Editor’s Pick] Walking with prisoners

Hong Kong’s “Prisons Department” was renamed “Correctional Services Department” in 1982 to emphasize the rehabilitation of prisoners rather than punishment. However, inmate abuse scandals have continued to emerge despite the change in the department name. To increase public awareness about the human rights of juvenile inmates, rookie director Andrew Wong recreates the dark world of a youth detention center in his directorial debut With Prisoners, which questions the effectiveness of violent discipline methods in rehabilitating criminals and restoring order.

Based on a real-life story, With Prisoners offers a brutal yet realistic look into the life of juvenile offenders under the Hong Kong correctional system. Played by Nick Yau (She Remembers, He Forgets), young gang leader Fan gets sentenced to a youth detention center after being convicted of assaulting a policeman. His arrogance is instantly deflated when he gets savagely beaten and humiliated by the barbaric correctional officers. Due to the terrible abuse and insults, he attempts suicide after just three days behind bars. After being saved, Fan pulls himself together and endures all the physical and mental pain in hopes of getting an early release to see his ill grandmother.

Unlike the vengeful protagonists of typical prison dramas, Fan remains silent over the warders’ misconduct despite his resentment of their inhuman brutality. To avoid getting into trouble again, he is pressured to conform to prison norms and satisfy his jailers’ unreasonable demands, such as cleaning a toilet bowl with his fingers and volunteering for a beating when the warders aren’t in a good mood. Fan acts as a mirror for those facing the difficult dilemma of standing up against social injustice or compromising to seek a false peace.

Believing that rehabilitation is possible only when a balance is struck between punishment and education, sympathetic guard Ho (Kelvin Kwan, The Moment) plays a pivotal role in bringing out the film’s key issue of prisoners’ human rights. The story reaches a turning point when Ho’s faith is shaken by his wife, who resumes her drug habit. The key message of the film is well delivered. Nevertheless, since the film only touches upon Ho’s past as a social worker, audiences are left with doubts about his reasons for becoming a prison officer and his wife’s influence on his correctional philosophy. This background story would have helped create a more complete and convincing plot.

Though it doesn’t have a grand prison break or an intricate revenge plan, With Prisoners still appeals thanks to its near documentary approach. The frank depiction of the problematic correctional system in Hong Kong guides audiences to reflect upon the purpose of correctional services.

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