The Prey. 2019. Directed by Jimmy Henderson. Screenplay by Henderson, Michael Hodgson, & Kai Miller.
Starring Gu Shangwei, Byron Bishop, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Nophand Boonyai, Rous Mony, Dara Our, Dy Sonita, & Vithaya Panringarm.
Altered Vision Films / Kongchak Pictures
Not Rated / 93 minutes
Disclaimer: The following article contains spoilers
Good enough martial arts action can survive on its own without dense plot. We love to see Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and other stars do their thing, no matter if that means 90+ minutes of kicking ass and little else. It’s icing on an already delicious cake when the action comes with a little something more, whether a genuinely powerful acting performance alongside the technical skill, or story / characters that’ll grip the viewer as much as the fight choreography.
Jimmy Henderson’s The Prey is a lean, furious film. The plot puts Xin (Gu Shangwei)— a Chinese cop deep undercover on an international organised crime mission— in a bad situation when he’s arrested alongside the mafia members he’s attempting to bust. He lands in a remote prison at the edges of a Cambodian jungle. Normally it’d be dangerous enough. This particular prison is run by a sadistic Warden (Vithaya Pansringarm, whom many Western viewers will recognise from Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives). He farms prisoners out to the affluent. Xin and others are taken to the forest and let loose as prey for rich hunters. He has to band together with the criminals or face potential death alone.
Xin’s struggle is already entertaining with Shangwei displaying his martial arts skills and the jungle providing an adequate playground for Henderson to show off growth in his directing since the 2017 action-comedy Jailbreak. Added to visual flair and ass kicking are subtle pieces of writing, placed within a Cambodian version of Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” that illustrate the violent divide between economic classes.
The Prey is an excellent postmodern action film because it presents a genuine Marxist power struggle in the shadow of horrors committed by a state communist regime, Khmer Rouge. A Cambodian action-thriller set in a prison where prisoners are sold off to be murdered cannot escape the horrors of a man like Pol Pot, just like a German director setting a story with concentration camp ruins in the background wouldn’t be able to ignore Adolf Hitler’s brutal legacy.
“I’m obsessed with those moments
when man becomes animal”
The above quote, from the Warden, captures much of what the movie is about: the animalistic nature of man. Prison turns men into animals by necessity— even those who go in for non-violent crimes are faced with defending themselves from all sorts of assaults, to the point they’ve got to be a hardened warrior just to survive. The irony is that Xin’s an undercover cop. His career’s been spent putting men into cages, and now he, too, has to return to an animal-like state of being to survive this nasty place. The jungle is a symbolic setting. Xin takes the place of an animal. Not solely in the sense of a man trying to retain his humanity in the face of violence— he’s part of the economic food chain, at the top of which sit those with the capital to buy / sell human lives.
On the one hand, prison and its inherent violence turns men into animals. On the other hand, money and power corrupt men towards vicious behaviour, too. Wealth can make people less civilised, not more. They seek further and further excess to satisfy their bottomless bourgeois urges, sooner or later spilling over into decadence. When the rich hunters are in the jungle hunting Xin and the criminals, one of them says to himself: “Now I am the tiger and you are the prey.” He growls like tiger, sighting his prey in a rifle scope. After one hunter’s killed, the leader, Mat (Byron Bishop, who also appeared in Only God Forgives) says: “This is not a game anymore.” Only after one of the bourgeois are killed does the violence becomes serious for them— their lives have value, whereas their prey are worthless except as fleshy targets for the rich to murder.
More compelling is how these bourgeois killers appear opposite the criminals they hunt. The old adage about honour among thieves rings wholly true in The Prey. Xin and another man— a thief— easily come together, watching each other’s backs to survive the onslaught of bullets / explosives. The undercover cop doesn’t think twice about helping a thief, and neither does the thief about helping Xin. The bourgeois hunting squad are diametrically opposed to the criminals in this sense. Mat and Ti (Nophand Boonyai) have prior issues, involving a shady military operation in their past. They gradually divide as the plot wears on. The big shootout during the climactic finale pits Ti against his own rich friends, as well as their military reinforcements, illustrating the nebulous nature of solidarity between the rich versus Xin and the thief’s working class cooperation.
“All I did was give society
the privilege of
paying the fuckers back”
There are echoes of the prison-industrial complex all throughout Henderson’s action film. Cambodia itself has serious issues with its prisons, whether it’s the prisons themselves teeming with bodies, or rampant systemic corruption. The most significant aspect about actual prisons in the country in regards to this fictional depiction is the idea of a for-profit system run by the powerful to benefit a certain economic class.
Just this year, the Cambodian government announced a plan to open new prison facilities where criminals could pay to stay. Prisons like Prey Sar have suffered from overcrowding, so the government thought a 5-star prison hotel, for the upper class criminal, would be a proper solution. The government has recently come out in the press to say the pay-to-stay prison project isn’t happening, after much negative press at home and abroad. Like this ridiculous idea for solving the overcrowding problem, The Prey‘s Warden likewise uses the warehoused bodies of prisoners as a method of gaining capital while clearing out space.
It’s impossible to separate a Cambodian film about prisoners ruthlessly hunted by men with dark military pasts from the history of Cambodia, where 40 years prior Pol Pot dominated citizens via state-run communism (a.k.a capitalism-lite) and killed a little over 20% of the country’s 1975 population. The Warden is a Pot-type figure, presented visually at times as a devil— one shot of his face with fire lighting him from below is decidedly Luciferian. Another has him using an upside cross torture apparatus to torture Xin, including an iron crown. Interestingly, our undercover cop passes a sign that bears the number 666 in the opening scene before the events that leads him to the Warden’s prison. The torture particularly conjures images of Pot, whose S-21 prison used electrical shock torture as one of many methods to force confessions.
It’s the finale that’s most shocking in terms of connections to Cambodia’s dark history, when the Warden and the hunters are aided by military forces— a literal merging of the prison and military-industrial complexes. Even the regular police are helpless in the face of the state’s most powerful institutions. Although Xin comes out of the confrontation alive, his final walk through the destroyed village and the bloody corpses littered is a horrific view of the damage caused by the state’s dominance over its lowest classes.
The Prey is a great action film, even without any of the additional theme readings Father Gore has plucked out. Xin begins a descent into near literal hell from the very start, and once the real action begins it never lets up until the final credits. Shangwei’s martial arts are impressive. His actual performance is better, as his character grapples with being forced to kill in order to survive ruling class violence. For a devilish figure in the Warden there’s no one better than Pansringarm. His penchant for playing odd, disturbed villains smacks less of typecasting than it does a fabulous acting trademark like the best actors who played the most fun, engaging bad guys throughout action’s 80s heyday.
Henderson continues to build an interesting career. Jailbreak was an entertaining ride. The Prey ups the ante, making the stakes of the plot bigger while also increasing the size of the set-pieces with numerous natural jungle locations to serve as stunning backdrops for adrenaline-fuelled fight choreography. If action with strong plot and thematic content is your bag, you’ll be more than entertained. If you’re solely interested in gunfights and thrilling martial arts, Henderson will satisfy those needs, and then some, too.