Two grainy fists for resurrection

Spectacularly immersive A Prayer Before Dawn tells the true story of a Brit becoming a muay Thai boxer in a Bangkok prison

Cannes 2017 film Published caption : A scene from A Prayer Before Dawn, a French production shot in Thailand and premiering at Cannes this week. photo courtesy of Festival de Cannes

Shot mostly in Thai prison, with a fair number of ex-cons as extras, A Prayer Before Dawn dives headfirst into the unfiltered squalor of prison life -- not the sociological or political dimension of state incarceration, but the physical, uncooked-meat kind of life in jail, particularly the Thai jail.

The body is neither a temple nor an amusement park in this film. It is a slab of meat, a receiving end of knives, fists, feet and other abusive organs. It is often covered in intricate tattoos -- on the back, the leg, the arm, and the face, inked with inerasable hieroglyphics that, like growth rings of a tree, signify the intensity of experience. In prison, the body is the only measure of survival, the sole quantifiable indicator that the heart is still beating, that life is still life. And yet, as the film shows, live prisoners sometimes share the floor with a dead one

The film is based on a book by Billy Moore, a Brit who in 2007 was convicted on drug charges and locked up in the fabled Klong Prem Prison of our hospitable Bangkok (the title, A Prayer Before Dawn, refers to a Muslim prayer call Moore heard in prison). There he became a muay Thai fighter, a brutal shot at redemption through, again, the use of the body.

A Prayer Before Dawn premiered to a fanfare last year at Cannes Film Festival, where the cast led by Joe Cole (playing Moore), Keng Laiprang (a Thai ex-con and internet star, playing chief hoodlum) and Vithaya Pansringarm (a well-known Thai actor, playing the prison warden) walked down the red carpet for a Midnight Screening. The director is a Frenchman, Jean-Stephane Sauviere, who finds raw authenticity in his cast and his location. The film is now available on Netflix.

A Prayer Before Dawn opens with the shot of a man's back, a muscular slab of taut white skin, the head invisible. It's Moore as he's being prepared to get up in the ring for a bout of brutal boxing, which ends with nasty cuts on his brows and Moore blowing up in a spurt of violence. He's a short-fused beast devoid of an ability to rein in his rage, and for Moore, the world is a place to be angry with, a punching bag to be pounded and pulverised. Joe Cole, the young British actor who plays him, makes Moore a compact ball of energy as he ploughs through the maze of prison intrigue looking for... what? Humanity? Salvation? Or more punching bags?

From that opening sequence, the narrative goes back to Moore's arrest in his flat while trying to hide meth. He's sentenced and shipped off to Klong Prem, and in the first night he's dumped into a communal ward with dozens of other prisoners, a swarm of tattooed jailbirds with coarse language and coarser looks. On the floor, one of them already dead and still lying there.

One part Midnight Express -- only rougher -- and in no way given to the sentimental vein of The Shawshank Redemption (which somehow is still cherished by the Thai audience), A Prayer Before Dawn is a very physical movie, and though we follow Moore's path towards correction, as he falls for a transgender who sells cigarettes and later joins a muay Thai camp in prison, the film is fuelled by a sense of danger, by the constant movement, the real location (perhaps the most "real" ever presented in a feature film), and the interactions of the prisoners, either the camaraderie or the criminal violation (rape, assault, murder). It's cinema of the body, and director Sauviere uses the camera to immerse us into that mass of flesh -- it's not relevant whether these bodies are equipped with souls or not, because in prison, that comes much, much later. Cole is a young English actor who shoulders the film with unwavering intensity. His character Moore is often bruised, cut, bloodied, his eyes hardly fully open due to some form of injury inflicted in the ring or in the ward, and Cole throws himself into the mess with professional commitment, albeit perhaps not with quite as much relish.

A surprise comes from ex-Thai boxing champion Somrak Khamsing, who plays Moore's trainer in prison. Right now in real life, Somrak is embroiled in a bankruptcy scandal that threatens to force him out of naval service; in the film, he shows a natural knack for acting and is easily the best Thai actor on the screen.

Having foreigners looking straight into the abyss of Thai prison can be revealing. It's a frank portrayal, sometimes a little too close to squalor porn (the transgender love interest is a little too sensational), and yet, A Prayer Before Dawn is remarkable in its brutalist mode, in sketching the grainy lives of these jailbirds not exactly to find humanity in them (that would be a cliché) but to see how far the body, and in effect the soul, could endure the inhuman hellhole that is their everyday surroundings.

A Prayer Before Dawn

Starring Joe Cole, Vithaya Pansringarm, Keng Laiprang, Somrak Khamsing
Directed by Jean-Stephane Sauviere
On Netflix