Breakout Brothers (逃獄兄弟, Mak Ho-Pong, 2020)

“I’m treating this as a vacation” says affable triad Chan (Louis Cheung Kai-Chung) of his three month prison term, after all it’s rent free and three meals a day who could say no to that in the difficult economic environment of pre-handover Hong Kong? Nevertheless, it’s hardly a vacation if you can’t cut it short and Chan, along with two buddies, will eventually find reasons to want to leave. Mak Ho-pong’s genial prison break comedy Breakout Brothers (逃獄兄弟) takes occasional subversive potshots against an increasingly corrupt social order but eventually discovers that you can’t escape social responsibility while the real reward is indeed the friends you make along the way. 

That is at least the conclusion that newbie prisoner Mak (Adam Pak Tin-Nam) comes to after being pulled into an escape plan formulated by petty gangster Chan who decides to make a break for it after learning that his dear mother has been taken ill and needs a kidney transplant which only he can give her. Thinking of his prison time as a vacation from the pressures of everyday life, Chan has been a low maintenance prisoner and therefore assumed the warden would agree to a temporary release to let him help his mum, but Warden Tang (Kenny Wong Tak-Ban) who has already served a “life sentence” of 30 years in post has recently been promised a promotion and doesn’t want anything to mess it up like a prisoner turning fugitive while on hospital leave. Spotting a workman disappearing from a storeroom and emerging Mario-style from a manhole on the other side of the fence Chan gets an idea and enlists Mak, an architect inside after being framed for taking bribes, to help him figure out the logistics, and Big Roller (Patrick Tam Yiu-Man), leader of the prison’s second biggest gang, for access and protection. 

The guys’ predicaments are perhaps embodiments of the age, Chan wanting out for reasons of filial piety while for Big Roller it’s in a sense the reverse in learning the daughter he was told had died is in fact alive and about to be married. Mak meanwhile wants out because he’s a sitting duck inside, the shady construction CEO who framed him for singing off on lax safety procedures which led to a fire in a prominent building having enlisted the services of rival gangster Scar (Justin Cheung Kin-Seng) to intimidate him into dropping his appeal. Hints of institutional corruption extend to the colonial prison system with guards quite clearly intimidated by prisoners and often turning a blind eye to cellblock violence while it’s also implied that Warden Tang has in a sense facilitated the rise of Scar at the expense of Big Roller as a means of maintaining order. He, like the colonial authorities, will soon be on his way but anticipating his own freedom is keen there be no trouble which is why he refuses Chan’s compassionate leave and extends little sympathy to new boy Mak. 

In any case, the real draw is the bumbling crime caper of the guys planning a heist-style escape which is, in the history of prison escapes, not an especially elaborate one. The prison is not exactly max security, and as they plan to escape during the celebrations for the Mid-August festival none of them are anticipating much difficulty in making it to the outside though as expected not quite everything goes to plan. Mak, meanwhile, eventually takes Big Roller’s advice and decides to stay inside to clear his name properly while the gang ensure his safety rather than try to live as a guilty fugitive and possibly be caught only to end up with more time. The other two have more pressing temporary goals and have not perhaps considered what to do after they’ve completed them, believing only that their lives are untenable if they cannot fulfil their duties as father and son respectively. 

Perhaps for this reason, the Mainland-friendly conclusion has each of the men recommitting themselves to paying their debts to society, Chan even insisting that he’s going to use his time wisely to improve his education in order to be a better husband and son while Big Roller promises to become a carpenter for real. Mak gets a partial vindication in that the shady CEO is finally forced to face justice while also realising that his slightly elitist, individualist stance has been mistaken thanks to the warm and genuine relationships he’s discovered inside. More comedy crime caper than tense prison break thriller, Breakout Brothers remains true to its name in prioritising the unconventional friendship that develops between the trio as they bond in a shared sense of existential rather than literal imprisonment. 


Breakout Brothers screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Trivisa (樹大招風, Frank Hui & Jevons Au & Vicky Wong, 2016)

Trivisa posterIt’s worth just taking a moment to appreciate the fact that a film named for the three Buddhist poisons – delusion, desire, and fury, is intended as a criticism of Hong Kong as an SAR that revels in the glory and subsequent downfall of three famous criminals who discover that crime does not pay right on the eve of the handover. Mentored by Johnnie To, Trivisa (樹大招風) is directed by three young hopefuls discovered through his Fresh Wave program each of whom directs one of the film’s three story strands which revolve around a trio of famous Hong Kong criminals.

Back in the ‘80s, as Mrs. Thatcher delivers her pledges on the Hong Kong handover, King of Thieves Kwai Ching-hung (Gordon Lam) gets stopped by a random police patrol, kills the officers, and then has to fake his identity to escape. 15 years later he’s a petty mobile phone trafficker dreaming of pulling off a big score. Meanwhile, Yip Kwok Foon (Richie Jen), once known for his AK47 brandishing robberies is a “legitimate businessman” smuggling black market electronics into Hong Kong and bribing Mainland officials to do it, while Cheuk Tze Keung (Jordan Chan) is a flamboyant gangster revelling in underworld glory and dreaming of eternal fame.

Rather than weave the three stories into one coherent whole or run them as entirely separate episodes, the three strands run across and through each other only to briefly reunite in the ironic conclusion. The most famous of the three real life criminals, Kwai Ching-hung’s arc is perhaps the most familiar though rather than fighting an existential battle against his bad self, Kwai’s quest is to regain his title as Hong Kong’s most audacious thief. To do this, he’s reunited with an old friend and comrade in arms who’s retired from the life and married a Thai woman with whom he has an adorable little daughter. Unbeknownst to him, Kwai has not come for old times’ sake but is taking advantage of the fact that the family live directly opposite his latest score. Employing two Mainland mercenaries, Kwai has his eyes on the prize but his friend is wilier than he remembered, is quickly suspicious of Kwai’s friendship with his daughter, and has his suspicions confirmed when he finds his kid’s backpack full of guns.

Yip’s story, by contrast, is one of diminished expectations and ongoing financial woes. An early scene at a restaurant finds Yip in the company of Mainland officials to whom he must scrape and bow, placating them with various bribes and engaging in the strange trade of precious vases which seems to pass as currency among corrupt civil servants. Corporate shenanigans and business disputes, however, are no substitute for good old fashioned firefights and Yip’s frustration with his new career is sure to lead to some kind of explosion at some point in time.

Cheuk becomes the lynchpin of the three as he takes an advantage of a rumour that the three “Kings of Thieves” are getting together to plan a giant heist to track down the other two and see if he can make it work for real. The most successful and happiest in his life, Cheuk has made his fortune out of ostentatious crime – kidnapping the sons of the extremely wealthy for hearty ransoms. He is, however, bored and dreams of making a giant splash which will ensure his name remains in the history books for evermore – i.e., blowing up the Queen.

Facing the approaching handover, each is aware the world will change, unsure as to how they’re in the process of trying to secure their futures either way. Kwai wants one last heist, Yip has already begun courting Chinese business, and Cheuk just wants to be the face in all the papers across the entire Chinese world. Kwai’s sin is “desire” – he wants one last hit as a criminal mastermind and he’s willing to take advantage of his friend (and even his friend’s young daughter) to get it, Yip’s sin is “fury” as dealing with constant humiliation leaves him longing for his AK 47, and Cheuk’s failing is “delusion” in his all encompassing need to be the big dog around town, all flashy suits and toothy grins. On the eve of the handover they all meet a reckoning – betrayal, a stupid and pointless death, or merely ridiculous downfall.

The heyday of crime has, it seems, ended but that’s definitely a bad thing, laying bare a change in dynamics between nations and a decline in the kind of independence which allows the flourishing of a criminal enterprise. Bearing To’s hallmark in its tripartite structure, ironic comments on fate and connection, and eventual decent into random gun battle, Trivisa is a ramshackle exploration of a watershed moment in which even hardened criminals must learn to live in a brave new world or risk being consumed by it.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (English subtitles)