There is something about ISLAND OF/ON FIRE that always reminds of Ringo Lam's Prison On Fire. I can't put my finger on quite what though - perhaps it's the fact that the names both contain the words "ON FIRE"? Or perhaps it's the fact that they're both prison movies starring Tony Leung Ka-Fai? I guess the fact that you could basically swap around half the scenes between the two movies without anybody noticing is a factor too.
Like Crime Story, this movie is often treated as the bastard child of Jackie Chan's filmography, like the cousin that nobody mentions because he became a porn star or something. Jackie himself is said to have disowned the movie, and tried to prevent it from being distributed... a rumour which does not bode well for the movie.
But since Jackie is hardly in the movie I say it's really none of his business to disown it. He was apparently brought in as a favour for old-school legend Jimmy Wang-Yu, who produced the film, and didn't give much of his time to the production. He basically turns up on 3 or 4 occasions, fights then disappears again. Still, if you can only get Jackie Chan for 20 screen minutes, having him fight for 15 of them is still a good idea. These are the only fight scenes in the movie - well, the only HK action style fights.
So it's definitely not a Jackie Chan vehicle, whatever the DVD cover likes to think. In fact it's something of an ensemble cast, with Leung Ka-Fai just about having the edge in screen time. A bookish young inmate who I think is Barry Wong gets a slightly lesser amount, Sammo Hung has a pretty large part... Jimmy Wang Yu has quite a big role as the prison's top dog. Oh, and Andy Lau turns up for quite a few scenes in one of the meanest roles I've seen him play. He gets to do some fighting too, in the ring with Jackie in fact, and it's a good reminder that Andy was original being pushed as an action star... and he was actually pretty good (or well doubled!).
The basic plot is that Leung Ka Fai is a good cop who enters a prison undercover, looking for evidence of corruption. He doesn't have to look very far, as the prison officers wear their corruption and general malevolence like big shiny badges that say "I'm corrupt". He evidently wants to stay and find out just how far the corruption runs or something though, because he doesn't just tell his superiors "Look, they've got big badges on saying that they're corrupt, let's arrest them" at the first opportunity... instead he does the undercover thing so thoroughly that I completely forgot he was a cop for 75% of the movie (as did the scriptwriters I think) and kind of merged his character here with his PRISON ON FIRE character. The result was a pretty compelling character though, and the study of how the character is changed by prison life is pretty rich... and his performance is again excellent.
I have to say I haven't seen a lot of prison dramas, but they do all seem to be basically the same... the petty power games, the dehumanisation, the "good man in a bad place" worn down so far you think he's going to snap... and he does, but into a better/stronger man. I guess prison life is pretty unvaried, so it's natural that basically the same things will happen in any prison movie. Nobody digs a tunnel here though. I do find the prison movie quite fascinating... like the assassin movie, it's a vision of a life so completely unlike mine I cannot imagine living it. I don't think I'd survive 8 seconds if I were sent to prison... which is why I've stopped selling drugs to school children. It's just not worth the risk!
I don't know why the movie is called ISLAND ON FIRE... there's no island and no more fire than is within normal regulations. Well, I guess Hong Kong is an island, but that's a pretty vague reason to choose the name for your movie. The alternative title THE PRISONER makes more sense, though I'm sure it's always billed as "Jackie Chan... Is.. THE... PRISONER!!!", which is still decidedly misleading.
The movie follows the traditional prison movie type events and themes, and in lieu of much external stimuli in such a closed environment it's up to the characters to drive the movie. Characterisation here is very good, and the performances from Tony Leung and Sammo Hung especially are excellent. Wang Yu is really good too, and there's a plentiful cast of supporting characters that all acquit themselves well (excuse the pun). The tone of the movie is very good, which in this context means gritty, bleak and a little bit desperate. One theory as to why Jackie disowned it is that it is a long way from the relatively jolly movies that he likes to make.
That is until the end, when the scriptwriters (and this viewer) suddenly remember that Tony was a cop at the start of the movie, and the plot follows some unexpected directions that set it apart from the usual prison drama crowd. It's still quite bleak, violent and desperate, but the... ingenuity... of it at least put a grin on my face .
I really liked this movie - I thought it was fascinating, atmospheric, well paced and well performed. Since my previous exposure to Chu Yen Ping as director was restricted to FANTASY MISSION FORCE and FLYING DAGGER, I was expecting something completely stupid and random (though I knew it was pretty gritty and bleak). I was very surprised at how well crafted it turned out to be... though with just enough surprises up its sleeve to remind us who's directing and to keep it from being a vanilla "genre movie" (for those who haven't seen FANTASY MISSION FORCE, a) Don't, it's bad and b) it probably squeezes the most genres into its run time of any movie ever c) but without sense or reason).
"Wow, hidden gem!" I concluded after seeing it... but my colleague (who was sat next to me the whole time) thought it was lame and stupid, so now I don't know quite what to think. Except that he has yet to master the fine art of movie appreciation that I have developed .
The Hong Kong Legends DVD was one of the first they produced I think, and shares with some of their early titles the inexplicable lack of a Cantonese audio track. The Mandarin dub was jarring at first, but I got used to it pretty quickly, and found it didn't really hurt the movie. With Chu Yen Ping being Taiwanese, it's even possible that Mandarin was the language being spoken on set much of the time anyway. What the DVD does include, perhaps to make up for it, is quite a good set of extras. The best of these is about 25 minutes of deleted scenes from the Taiwanese version of the movie. These are from a pretty poor VHS source so they couldn't have been integrated with the movie, but watching them as stand-alone pieces is very interesting. They include quite a lot more character development, and possibly give the movie an even bleaker tone. I believe that the main feature is also edited differently here than on previous home video versions. The HKL edit is the 'correct' order though, and I certainly wouldn't have changed it.
There's also about 25 minutes worth of interview footage with Sammo, Chu Yen Ping and Jimmy Wang Yu (all seperate interviews)... they have some very interesting things to say, though Wang Yu is an arrogant little sod
As a final word I must mention the soundtrack for the movie, which I thought was excellent, and central to the atmosphere of the movie and the general feeling of high production values. It was perhaps a little overused, but so lovely that it was only briefly in danger of being 'repetitive'.
Overall verdict: definite recommendation... as long as you get the HKL version. But be warned that opinions may diverge wildly!