Prisoner 701: Sasori
Title: Prisoner 701: Sasori
Starring: Miki Mizuno, Dylan Kuo, Emme Wong, Nana Natsume
Director: Joe Ma
It's hard to mention the genres of Women-in-Prison or Pinky Violence without at some point coming across a reference to the 'Female Prisoner 701' trilogy, and indeed they served as a welcome introduction to the classic 70s Japanese exploitation cinema that I've since explored more thoroughly, and so when news of a reboot of the well known franchise emerged, I knew it was only a matter of time until it fell into my hands. Intriguingly constructed as a collaboration between both Japanese and Chinese production companies, this was to be no small budget affair, and with talent from both countries converging it certainly filled me with promise, but this is ultimately a very different film. The original was dark and gritty, filled with sadism and gratuitous nudity and delivered by Meiko Kaji, an actress for whom this film would become a permanent attachment to her career; more a dark and dramatic thriller than this all out action-filled romp.
Opening with a view of our protagonist on the brink of death, tied up and left to rot for the trouble she's caused, its from here that we learn her tale of how she came to be known as Scorpion. Engaged to her love (Kuo), she is ambushed by a group of mercenaries paid to kill her partners brother and under the threat of murdering them both, is forced to to their dirty deeds for them. Sentenced to a women's prison for his murder, she quickly learns of the truth behind the institution; that women are forced to do battle to the death with one another for the entertainment of the malicious prison warden. Intently she watches them fight, learning and awaiting her inevitable confrontation with Dieyou (Natsume), the resident champion. Sentenced to death, she is rescued from its clutches by the corpse collector who teaches her the art of combat, delivering her a sword so she can execute her bloody retribution on all those responsible for forcing her into this world.
The problems largely stem from the fact that it doesn't feel like it really knows what sort of film it wants to be; the dark and harrowing atmosphere whilst not immediate slowly emerges as her depraved story is spun, detailing the brutality she was forced into and her subsequent incarceration. On the inside is no pleasant stay either, and simply keeping your head down doesn't help avoid the wrath of the other inmates. And these cat fights aren't just girls slapping one another but bloody and brutal beyond what you would normally expect, filled with an 'Oldboy' sense of raw viscerality that doesn't shy away for anything. By the time the final prison confrontation rolled around I thought I had a real gem on my hands, wondering how they would manage to top such a fiendish battle to the death. Turns out they wouldn't.
Once she escapes, the story of the “Prisoner” feels like it's finished and a new film concerning the 'Revenge' has begun. That dark atmosphere that was built up is all but forgotten and we're suddenly thrust into a world of wire abuse and martial arts mastery, and whilst the violence isn't forgotten, it never comes across as raw or as bloody. It never feels as though she's really human either, taking fierce blows without even flinching. The choreography still feels exceptionally well done, if perhaps a little bit more random and comical in places, and so whilst all this is not necessarily bad in its own right, it simply comes across as so painfully disjointed that the film would have been much better served being broken into two. Even the nudity seems to have been forgotten; the initial cat fights in badly fitting bra's, or entirely performed in mud are suddenly gone for something a lot more modest.
If there is one thing I take from this film its Miki Muzuno; she may not be the prettiest or the most emotive actress around, but she knows how to fight. Whether grappling on the floor and using the tools around the room to do her damage, or performing ridiculous stunts in that classic over the top martial arts manner; either bludgeoning someone with a hammer or showing her elegant side with the use of a sword, as much as Tony Jaa has martial arts masters to compete with she can stack up against the best as well, and just about everything with her in it has suddenly received a bump on my 'to watch' list. If not for her performance throughout, the fight scenes would have lost much of their charm, and past the midway point it was this that the film hinged on (though this isn't to undermine the role of the villians, they simply felt less evil and more like a generic opponent to be faced). Up until the second half I was impressed enough to consider this as equal to the original. It's a shame they couldn't have kept that momentum.