School on Fire

School on Fire ★★★★

Hong Kong is, or perhaps I should now say, was, a unique place. A dazzlingly modern metropolis, yet also a throwback to the time of city-states, a form of human organisation now as lost to time as those famous names from history, places such as Athens, Sparta, Florence, Siam and Venice. All gone now, swallowed up by modern countries, rational-legal constructs of the generic Weberian type. HK was once the jewel of Asia, a peaceful capitalist metropolis in the post-war decades when much of the continent was crushed under some repressive government, the particular ideology didn't matter; when you're not free the espoused political views of your gaolers matter not. (And yes, technically Hong Kong was a British colony at the time, but I'd love a long chat with those who fancy themselves as anti-colonialists about how much worse things are now than when the UK ran the place in a benign, hands-off sort of way.) But of course no matter how bright the lights reflecting off the harbour are, no matter how many Rolex shops there are no matter how low the taxes are, not everyone thrives. Any wealthy society is built upon an underclass doing shit jobs for low pay, and through the eyes of teenagers born into this world School on Fire shows us the ugly side of Hong Kong.

In a shitty part of Kowloon City near Kai Tak Airport, a cramped and crumbling school is the daytime haunt of kids who go back to cramped and crumbling apartments at night. Some of the locations look like the infamous nearby Kowloon Walled City, but a lot of the area was almost as bad. You can smell the exhaust, the garbage, the cigarette smoke, the sweat. As with Roma (2018), the shots of widebody airliners roaring overhead and landing is a visual metaphor of the gap between the wealth of the Hong Kong's jet set society and how far our young protagonist is away from this, despite the physical proximity. When there is poverty childhood and adolescence are luxuries, the fortunate one might to get to work in their parents' shop, the less fortunate will be pushed into crime for the boys and prostitution for the girls. All the parents endorse the value of education, but it's society and the opportunities (or lack thereof) in that society that determine the value of everything, including education. Life here is circle of protection, and the Triads are the only ones with money, so most people are connected with the underworld, and thus are dammed.

Within this pressure cooker an inciting incident takes place, one wrong move and the stresses the system is constantly under start to break. People and ties both snap. This is a very violent film, but not in that stylised, abstract Hollywood sort of way, but a raw physical violence where everyone is treated terribly but are in turn always ready to lash out. Old, young, male, female, it doesn't matter, everyone is a victim. So we mostly follow the tragic fall of Chu Yuen-Fong from innocuous schoolgirl to the centre of this maelstrom of death, but she's just a totem of this malaise of corruption and twisted notions of brotherhood and honour. As Denis Villeneuve observed in response to some asinine criticism directed at his Blade Runner 2049 (2017), when life is hard it will always fall hardest on women. How lucky are we in the West that the salaries of movie stars, the percentage of women in top managerial positions and incorrect use of pronouns are legitimate issues of concern for so many? School on Fire is also noteworthy in how there is absolutely zero glamour in the way organised crime is depicted. This is not a movie that idolises this nasty and ruthless business, and this brutal honesty I find far superior to those filmmakers who are, ironically, simultaneously soft on crime and hard for criminals.

The only other Ringo Lam film I've seen was his mandatory "I'm a Hong Kong director making my first Hollywood movie and therefore am contractually obliged for it to star Jean-Claude Van Damme": 1996's Maximum Risk (other entries in this movement feature John Woo who kicked things off in 1995 with Hard Target, then Tsui Hark came along in 1997 and gave the world the miracle that is Double Team). Based on what an emotional experience this was I really want to check out his previous film to this one, 1987's City on Fire. Nowadays you'd struggle to get movies like this made in Hong Kong, that are so raw and uncompromising about the failures of society. Nowadays Hong Kong society is being slowly strangled by Father Xi and the mainland Communist Party. The unique history and identity of the city state is having the life squeezed out of it, and I fear it won't endure for much longer. I've said it before and I'll keep on saying it until I breathe my last: there are no happy endings.

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