Bangkok Hell: Nor Chor - The Prisoners Review
When Raywat (Chalat Na Songkla) kills a man after hitting him during a car race he’s sent to court, where the judge hands out a reduced three year prison sentence for negligent driving. When he arrives he’s greeted by prison Superintendent Sila (Kongsak Kaenmeepol) who informs him, and the other prisoners, of the rules they must abide to. But Sila soon learns of Ray’s claustrophobia and because he sees him as a trustworthy enough fellow he offers him an easy way out, a way to get by and earn a further reduced sentence. All Ray has to do is go undercover and weed out bad prisoners who are carrying out illegal activities whilst in confinement. He eventually accepts the offer in spite of fear, and with the help of Chief Warden Mun (Sahassachai Chumrum) he begins to learn the ins and outs of prison life, from getting by as carefully as possible to discovering that there can be more to these types of people than meets the eye. The further that Ray journeys the more in danger his life becomes. He has few friends in the prison, but those he does have prove to be invaluable, not only in helping to complete his task at hand, but also in showing him the true values of the human spirit.
Manop Janejaruskul’s Nor Chor derives from a book written by Orasom Suthisakorn entitled “Prison - Life in Confinement”. This collects interviews from prisoners of all walks of life, from various Thai prisons, illustrating hardships and personal beliefs, lessons learned and future prospects. Janejaruskul adapted these stories in 2002 and developed a narrative around them. I’ve got to hand it to the guy - his first major feature, in which he writes and also edits makes for an impressive debut. Furthermore, just about all of his principal cast members are making their feature debuts, and neither is his creative team largely built up of industry veterans; the film might have all the elements then of an amateur production, and yet we find a well constructed piece of work that comfortably sits alongside some of the better prison dramas out there, such as Lock Up and Death Warrant.
In creating such a workable environment Janejaruskul has to evenly distribute his loyalties. It’s never easy when tackling subject matter such as this to keep an on-the-fence approach; you couldn’t afford to take drastic sides, or else you threaten to lose your audience. Much of the focus on Nor Chor is toward depicting prisoners as human beings with obvious flaws. The director challenges the justice system first and foremost, highlighting that that not all those who are incarcerated deserve to be handed such harshly imposed sentences, such as one man, a kind and impoverished music teacher, who stole and sold fifty instruments and thus was given 100 years imprisonment - two years per piece. All the same he did a criminal act and that’s where we’re left to question where the line should be drawn. At the same time we see other “victims” of the system, those who have been wrongly imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. So clearly the film is dealing with issues that we already know to be fact, but it also looks toward other areas. We have murderers, rapists, drug dealers and petty criminals - all of whom carried out serious acts against society and fully deserve to be where they are. In this case it’s where Janejaruskul begins to tread carefully. He treats the prison as a kind of philosophical haven, where rehabilitation is the name of the game; some will never be “cured” of their ways, some will never see the outside world ever again and some will inevitably face the firing squad, but everyone must come to terms with reality. The director does well to bring into play various characters, quite a large roster in fact, where he tries to evenly distribute his time between them as they become integral in the overall development of the film. It’s interesting to note that he also spends time with several of the prison wardens, from the chiefs to the executors, and he must be praised for his efforts here because he equally depicts them in as real a manner as possible. There aren’t any wickedly clichéd, villainous guards to boo and hiss at, just people doing the thankless job that they’re paid to do. They’re presented as men who have equally as tough a time when faced with the everyday stress that their role brings, often facing dangerous situations or having to carry out death sentences. If there is a single theme to be had from Nor Chor then it’s simply about coping.
But amidst all of this there has to be a story of some sort, and it’s not too bad. There’s a lot of suddenness in the early portion of the film: Ray is taken away before we even know a single thing about him and it worryingly looks as if we won’t see any kind of character development. However, Janejaruskul uses quick cutting in the form of flashbacks to flesh out Ray’s being, and while he does set him up as having a justifiable motive he isn’t necessarily an entirely likeable character. In fact very few of them are, aside from Chief Warden Mun played excellently by Sahassachai Chumrum, though I don’t mean to say that in general the acting is below par; certainly Chalat Na Songkla makes a welcome debut appearance, doing a fine job of portraying Ray as a conflicted young man who must bear and try to overcome his inner weaknesses, while facing up to his responsibilities. The narrative copes with all kinds of people, as mentioned, some who are given more life, while others are merely one dimensional bad guys. But this is about hitting buttons and the intent to stir the viewer emotionally. It doesn’t always pay off, but when it does it offers some very poignant moments indeed.
That doesn’t stop the film from falling into the usual traps though: once Ray has taken his new position within the prison events play out quite predictably, each one being far too deliberately staged, thus taking the only obvious route out. He is warned not to trust anybody, he’s given vomit inducing pills in case of the event he gets poisoned and he bonds with a fellow prisoner who has only days before he’s released back into society and, well, you can guess where all of this is headed. Still, it’s well played and Janejaruskul even uses some nice, light moments to get us through the hardships. Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether or not we’re supposed to find certain bits funny, like the rapist who goes on about three prisoners called Lust 1, 2 and 3, or when Ray bends over to get the soap, only to be accosted by a big burly fellow after his friend Jon tells him about abiding to the strict rule - “never bend over for the soap”. Nevertheless it’s entertaining, and the director keeps things moving along quite spryly and he certainly has a great eye for detail and composition. He does a great job in presenting at times a pseudo documentary angle, which often makes particular scenes a little more unnerving or sympathetically highlights others. He also captures the claustrophobic atmosphere particularly well, showing dozens of prisoners confined to a single room, which also plays well off Ray’s inherent claustrophobia. As it heads toward some larger action set pieces, which feel slightly out of place for a film of this verisimilitude, Janejaruskul keeps things moving readily along and injects some nice visual flourishes. I’m not knowledgeable at all about Thai cinema, but of the few films I have seen this one is from a director who shows considerable talent, and should he work on any more future projects then I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for them.
It should be noted that that the film’s original title is Nor Chor , otherwise translated as “Prisoners”. For some reason the UK distributor has decided to go the extra mile in adding some menace with the Bangkok Hell heading. This was released under the same banner in the UK previously on a different label. Now I should point out that Terra’s recent releases have had some odd release dates. They’ve been slightly re-packaged and it’s occasionally difficult to know which retailer is stocking which version; it does not help when online the Terra title is going by the name of Nor Chor, despite the Bangkok Hell packaging header, while the Screen Entertainment discs are listed the other way. Currently this version is slated for release on Feb 5th 2007 and as such some websites have it up for pre-order, while others list it as being "on order" with a November 13th 2006 release, or have the original release still knocking about. Affiliate links have been added only for the Terra release.
Oh dear. I’m sorry to say it again, but we’re onto another loser. While Nor Chor looks pleasing in terms of a vibrant colour scheme and good contrast and black levels, it’s let down in every other department. First of all we’re looking at yet another standards conversion that exhibits combing and ghosting, in addition to being presented in a non-anamorphic 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The transfer suffers from compression artefacts, cross colouring and something that I have never seen before: a strange amount of banding which represents itself in vertical lines throughout.
Screen grab here:
Sadly it also relies on burnt in English subtitles that also show the occasional grammatical error. The other problem with the subtitles is that they go out of frame, on to the black borders, which means there’s no chance of even zooming the image to enjoy the flick that way. Altogether it’s a giant let down.
In terms of audio we’re given a standard Thai two channel mix. Judging the end credits Nor Chor was filmed with DD Surround EX in mind, so clearly we’re missing out on something here. That said the track is decent; dialogue has plenty of clarity, which is about the main importance considering for the most part it is a very chatty film. But there are occasions that lack a certain aggressiveness, such as an execution scene or the huge finale that would probably benefit from having solid rear effects. It’s occasionally punchy, while being a tad underwhelming. I suspect that it may be a down-mixed offering. I’m knocking off a point for the burnt subs also. You know my policy on that by now.
All we have on the disc is a “Making Of” piece running for nine minutes. This is a montage of various behind the scenes activities backed by the film’s signature theme song.
Nor Chor is an effective prison drama that feels familiar to many others before it and relies a little too heavily on convenient situations, but it manages to go on a couple of different routes, which enables it to offer something of importance still.
As a side note I’m totally in support of Terra and the decisions they’ve been making on releasing some of the more obscure contemporary titles from mainly Japan, but also other parts of Asia, even if some haven’t quite been must-see material. But I find myself a little frustrated that as yet they haven’t been able to maintain a high enough standard, with a ridiculously inconsistent record. There are undoubtedly fans of these films who would like to see more respectful releases and I believe that this company needs to shape up real soon if they’re to continue in this competitive market. On one hand their prices seem quite fair, with R.R.P. coming in under a tenner, but that really shouldn’t be justifiable reasoning for putting out shoddy transfers. I hope that the company takes note of these honest complaints and that 2007 brings will bring us better things.