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)

Shadows (殘影空間, Glenn Chan, 2020)

Are humans innately good or innately evil, and when we do good do we do it altruistically or to make ourselves feel better? These are all questions which occur to an idealistic yet conflicted forensic psychiatrist in Glenn Chan’s twisty psycho-noir, Shadows (殘影空間). Burdened both by a medical condition which apparently conveys a kind of superpower and by her own unresolved trauma, Ching (Stephy Tang Lai-Yan) wants to believe that people are at heart good but is herself caught in a complex web of manipulations in which even her well-meaning interventions may have unintended consequences. 

Ching’s big case is that of a 34-year-old social worker, Chu, who suddenly bludgeoned his entire family, three generations of women, to death with one of his many trophies which had a small heart on its top before calling the police and jumping over his balcony. As he only lived on the second floor, Chu survived but appears remarkably nonchalant about his crime. Police officer Ho (Philip Keung Ho-man) brings in Ching to figure out if Chu was really in a state of mental distress when he committed the murders, or if his certainly survivable suicide attempt is part of a smokescreen to help him evade justice. Possibly caused by a brain tumour, Ching’s special power is the ability to insert herself into her patients’ traumatic memories which is where she hears Chu recall a mantra that all humans are selfish and only think of themselves. This statement is meant not as censure but affirmation, Ching recalling a similar sentiment uttered by a rival psychologist, Yan (Tse Kwan-Ho), whom Chu had also been seeing, to the effect that mental imbalance lies in an inability to embrace one’s shadow self including “negative” impulses such egotism. 

In truth, the investigation into Chu’s case soon recedes into the background more or less forgotten as Ching embarks on an ideological battle with Yan who, we are told, has recently returned from many years living in the individualistic West and is peddling a kind of hyper individualist will to power which she regards as abetting his patients, a surprising number of whom go on to commit violent crime. Yan argues that humans are born evil and that the individual has the right to be selfish, abandoning conventional morality to pursue their own desires including those which necessarily harm others. Ching believes she’s doing the opposite, yet her attempt to help a victim of domestic violence by convincing her that she has the right and power to escape her abusive familial environment eventually places her in the same position as Yan. 

Given her own traumatic history, she may have to consider there’s something in Yan’s assertion that her intentions are also “selfish” in that she helps others in order to help herself feel better. When her investigation leads her, somewhat improbably, towards a serial killer with a Silence of the Lambs-esque taste for “beautiful” corpse tableaux she exposes him doing something much the same, claiming that he’s “saving” elderly people from the pain and suffering of old age but in reality trying to make himself feel better for failing to prevent the suffering of someone he loved while selfishly avoiding the pain of losing them. 

Determined to prove Yan is a serial killer by proxy manipulating his patients by encouraging them to embrace their darkest desires, Ching fails to see the degree to which she is also being manipulated, possibly for much longer than she might have realised. Yan’s patients refuse their responsibility towards others, rejecting the consequences of their actions in insisting that everyone makes their own choices. His hyper individualist philosophy might be seen as a stand-in for the increasingly selfish impulses of a previously collectivist society, a shift away from conventional morality towards the primacy of the self, yet it also darkly suggests that altruism is also cynical and born either of guilt or the selfish desire for reciprocity. In the end the verdict is in a sense left to a legitimate authority, Ho asked to decide if he thinks Yan is a crazed libertarian mad scientist, or if Ching is merely a traumatised and deluded woman pursuing some kind of personal vendetta. Featuring fantastic production design and stand out performances from Stephy Tang and Philip Keung, Shadows has no easy answers for the nature of the human soul but nevertheless casts its various protagonists on a noirish journey through the traumatic past guided only by duplicitous voices and ambivalent authority. 


Shadows screens at the BFI Southbank on 25th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)