DEATH ROW, the Tony Pietra-directed episode of the Dark City TV series is a prison drama/thriller set in a fictional Southeast Asian country where everyone speaks Malay, but peppered with a bit of English whenever someone ones to make a point.
No, I haven't seen the TV smash hit, PRISON BREAK, but the dark and gritty atmosphere, along with the sight of a sadistic prison warden made me think more of the 1987 Hong Kong film classic starring Chow Yun Fat, PRISON ON FIRE (instead of something like, say, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION), when I was watching this. But then, with its supernatural elements, it's really a bit more like THE GREEN MILE.
Prison films are always enjoyable even if their formula is familiar. We have a protagonist who ends up in jail because of some minor, audience-friendly crimes (even if it's murder, he did it out of self-defense, or by accident), tries to come clean while he was there, bonds with either one or two other inmates who are just as nice as he is, but has to take a lot of crap from not-so-nice gang of inmates, and they have to suffer in silence because the prison wardens are evil and sadistic too. Ultimately, we see how hero and his friends stage a revolt of sorts, finally achieving victory over those who treated them badly and preserving their own dignity.
DEATH ROW is NOT like this.
The episode is only 30 minute long, so we can't really know the characters well enough to feel anything when a prison warden is being absolutely brutal towards the inmates. Even though the narrator of this story was a sadistic prison warden, I found it rather difficult to feel repulsed by his actions. Maybe I was comparing him too much with the ultimate absolute asshole prison warden, Roy Cheung's character in PRISON ON FIRE. Man, that guy dished out more than just physical punishment, but emotional and mental torture as well upon poor Tony Leung Ka Fai and Chow Yun Fat. Like not allowing Chow Yun Fat out for a day to attend his mother's funeral, or deliberately turning other inmates against CYF by claiming that he ratted on them.
I also thought of this prison warden character in the seldom seen Tony Leung Chiu Wai film CHINESE MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, where he invited Tony to his office for a chat, and he (the prison warden) was actually having a haircut. He offered Tony coffee, but turned out that this wasn't all. He placed bits and pieces of his hair in the coffee, forced Tony to drink it, then had his cronies slam a wooden plank onto Tony's stomach, which intensified Tony's pain because Tony was just forced to drink coffee with prison warden's hair in it. If I don't remember wrongly, he also raped Tony's girlfriend, threatening to treat him badly in prison if she didn't listen to him.
Oops, guess I've gotten too carried away. But anyway, I guess my problem with the episode was that I didn't feel too negatively towards the sadistic prison warden that I would really look forward to his comeuppance. And my indifference towards his fate really hindered my enjoyment of the show.
Although, I have to admit that my limited grasp over the Malay language did make me feel lost at times, since the episode was really dialogue-driven. While the plot may have been somewhat predictable, the words that flowed out of the characters' mouths could've been poetry and I missed all those because I was straining to understand what was going on.
Now that I've gotten the bad out of the way, I'll move to the good. And that's probably the visuals, which was a hate-it-or-love-it affair for most people. For me, I had mixed feelings towards the moody and dark distinctive look Tony and his frequent collaborator, Jeffri Yusof, had given the film. There were times when I was annoyed, squinting at the really dark scenes, asking my friend, Peng Shien (not having Astro Ria myself, I had to run to his place, which was few houses away from mine, to watch the series) whether there was something wrong with his TV.
But at its best, the episode looked like something from a recent Frank Miller graphic novel (think: THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN, the one with thick ink outlines, strong digital colours, more impressionistic than realistic). Ultimately, Tony's visual style, which enthralled me in the music videos he did, were used with mixed results in this episode. Sometimes, they worked, sometimes, they felt jarring.
Working with a limited budget, the episode was a valiant attempt. But I honestly wasn't blown away. And unfortunately, I may be somewhat underwhelmed. Not good enough to have me wanting to tell more friends about the show, but not bad enough to make me want to stop following the show altogether. So it's likely that I'll review the next episode as well.
And just as I've promised, I'll link to anyone who bothered to spend time reviewing the episode in their blogs.
The first person who reviewed this was Georgette, whose frank and humourous review of DEATH ROW episode really deserves a read. Here's an excerpt from her review.
"I think the best part of the whole episode is when that cute warden’s expression when from wordless shocked to wordless outrage in about 5 seconds."
Other than that, a couple of commentators on my earlier blog entry about DARK CITY have bothered to share their thoughts about the episode with us, so I'm highlighting their comments as well:
"I actually liked it very much, compared to the first two episodes. The first one was dog shit. The second one was better, but still below average.
If this entire issue came out two weeks earlier, and had you seen those genuinely bad episodes, you guys would've had every justification to rip up the show!
But DEATH ROW was different. You can rag it for its weaknesses, but from my point-of-view, its strengths ultimately outweigh the flaws. A solid effort all in all."
- Anonymous 1
"Being an aspiring filmmaker myself, I can see the director's effort to lift the episode above the usual technical and aesthetic standards (or lack thereof!) of local TV dramas.
It was atmospheric and visually stunning (some wonderfully inventive lighting and camera-work in there). It had great acting. It had a measured, lyrical pace that built up nicely to the conclusion.
It effectively evoked a sense of darkness, dread and despair.
The reason why I'm raving about all of these qualities is because YOU JUST DON'T SEE THEM OFTEN ENOUGH in Malaysian TV productions.
Local dramas are often so flat and "RTM" in their presentation.
So I give DEATH ROW kudos for attempting to raise the barre, and mostly succeeded, at least from a directing standpoint.
Perhaps the weaknesses mainly lie in the script? I'm not good at dissecting that. But overall, I thought the whole thing worked."
- Anonymous 2
"It had beatings, bleeding and shanking, too! On TV! I love beatings, bleeding and shanking on TV! And lots of latent homo-eroticism! Did anyone else notice? Graphic violence and male bond(age)ing! Now THAT'S pushing the envelope!"
- The Film Faggot
THIS IS SPAAAARTAAA!