Director – Mak Ho-pong – 2020 – Hong Kong – 12 (Camden Council) – 90m
Three prison inmates attempt to escape so that they can attend to various pressing, personal issues– online in the UK as part of Focus Hong Kong 2022 Making Waves from Friday, July 8th to Sunday, July 10th
The generic side of Hong Kong movies (kung fu, supernatural, swordplay, gangster, horror, comedy) has long been one of the strengths of that territory’s film production. This one has already spawned two sequels (Breakout Brothers 2, 2021 and Breakout Brothers 3, 2022, both Mak Ho-pong). In essence, it’s deceptively simple: three inmates in prison attempt to break out. This is hardly an original concept, however two elements makes it different.
One, it’s conceived and shot as a caper movie. It’s not really a comedy, but it most definitely has a lightweight feel. This is brilliantly established from the get-go with the introduction of the score by Pong Chow and Noel Li, which follows a long tradition of themes in caper movies and TV series typified by Mission: Impossible (composed by Lalo Schifrin, 1966) with its driving yet off-kilter bass-line. In Breakout Brothers, this is accompanied by a striking, graphic,opening title sequence as good as that for Collectors (Park Jung Bae, 2020), the difference here being that Breakout Brothers lives up to the promise of its superlative title sequence whereas Collectors doesn’t.
Two, the astute script is cleverly constructed around a small group of characters with very specific reasons for wanting to break out of prison. Usually in prison escape movies, the incarcerated protagonists either have a (perfectly understandable) desire for freedom in and of itself or they are fascinated by the complex technical challenge of finding a route out through the prison which will actually work as a viable escape route, part of the ‘caper’ aspect of these films.
Central character Chan Ho-chin (Louis Cheung) is a small time crook who would rather live in prison than the outside world because it provides rent-free accommodation and three square meals a day. As long as he keeps his nose clean, he stays out of trouble and everything’s fine. But then he learns that his ageing mother is being admitted to hospital for a kidney operation, and her best chance of survival would be if a relative were to donate a kidney to her. Alas, Warden Tang (Wong Tak-bun) won’t allow him compassionate leave to visit her and donate his kidney for at least three months. So a prison break is his only option.
Although Warden Tang is the most powerful man in the prison and controls it effectively, two rival gang leader inmates Big Roller (Patrick Tam from A Witness Out Of The Blue, Fung Chi-Keung, 2019) and Scar (Justin Cheung) also wield considerable power. The trick is to be in with one of them to be protected from the other. Gangland boss Big Roller lost his daughter in a machete attack on an evening out with her and his wife (Christine Ng), many years ago, as a result of which his wife disowned him. So you never mention wife or daughter or family to him, as he’s likely to go berserk.
Finally, new arrival Mak Kin-tin (Adam Pak Tin-nam) is an architect who has been framed for skimping on adequate building materials which caused a huge fire. Unfortunately for him, the fire destroyed the personal effects of Big Roller’s daughter which Big Roller had retained as mementos of her, so Big Roller wants to take this out on Mak. As Cheung succinctly puts it, Mak is screwed.
Nevertheless, when it turns out that Big Roller’s daughter isn’t dead but rather kept away from him by his estranged wife and about to be married and Big Roller would like, more than anything else, to attend her wedding, giving him too a reason for wanting to break out, Big Roller decides to put his differences with Mak aside and join them in their escape attempt. (This undermines Mak’s reasons for wanting to escape, and a different script might have mined a promising seam of dramatic conflict here, but lightweight caper being the intent, the film doesn’t worry about it and since what follows works well enough as a caper, neither will we.)
Despite being an architect, which implies a very specific training, Mak’s university education appears to have included chemistry, as he is a wizard at knowing what substances will react in what ways and which chemicals can be found in which household products. On one occasion, he makes two chemicals react into a hard substance around a bolt that can then be used as a spanner for loosening a series of bolts on a ventilation grill after Chan has only been able to physically remove one of several identical bolts by hand. On another, he knows what exactly substance to use to make an impression off a key to a locked gate carried on the belt of cowardly prison guard ‘Chicken’ Keung (Tyson Chak).
As the escape plot goes forward, various things go wrong, including a failure to turn off several security cameras as planned and Scar’s muscling in on the escape (there’s no specific reason for him to want to beyond the usual desire for freedom), but eventually Big Roller, at least, gets out and attends his daughter’s wedding reception where she makes a moving tribute first to her mum and then, unexpectedly, to her late dad, unaware that he’s (a) very much alive and (b) present to hear her every word – until she later discovers a smiley made with tomato ketchup on a plate like he used to make for her when she was a kid. This is very effective and leaves you with a warm feeling inside. Chan’s mum gets through her kidney op too.
So rather than painting a portrait of hardened, tough as nails criminals, it paints them as ordinary people with relatable family needs which the narrative fulfils. It ought to be too corny for words, yet somehow it works and makes the film’s protagonists intensely likeable.
Breakout Brothers plays online in the UK as part of Focus Hong Kong 2022 Making Waves which runs from Friday, July 8th to Sunday, July 10th.