Just one among a strong range of options for fans of genre cinema at this year’s BIFF, “The Prey” comes to us as the fourth feature from Italian native Jimmy Henderson, director of a string of action, horror, and comedy movies in his adopted home of Cambodia. In an international community where the term “South-East Asian action movie” will call to mind little beyond Gareth Evans’ “The Raid” movies for most Western audiences, “The Prey” offers fans of the genre pretty much everything they’ve come to expect in recent years: frenetic and brutal hand-to-hand combat, stoic heroes (and cigar-chomping villains), buckets of blood, and a snappy way to spend 90 minutes.
Our hero is Xin (Gu Shangwei), an undercover Chinese cop who finds himself locked up in a remote Cambodian prison where the inmates are hunted as prey by wealthy businessmen. Three men arrive at the prison for the hunt (among them the sadistic “T”, played with a twitchy menace by Nophand Boonyai), and produce stacks of cash for the equally sadistic prison warden (Vithaya Pansringarm, perhaps best known to Western audiences for his role in Nicholas Winding Refn’s divisive “Only God Forgives”). Unsurprisingly, Xin is hand-picked for the festivities and he is released along with a group of fellow inmates into the Cambodian wilderness, the hunters in hot pursuit.
There’s not much I can say here that would spoil the ins and outs of the plot – few surprises lie in wait – but the film hits all the beats you expect from that setup and does them with a steady hand from both Henderson and cinematographer Lucas Gath. People get picked off one by one, weapons jam, bad guys get outwitted, and Xin’s Chinese intelligence counterparts try to find their lost agent. But overall, the filmmakers do a lot with a little. Gath uses his camera in inventive ways, shooting from unconventional angles and even in POV at one point, and the film opens with a long single-shot sequence that announces the film as a stylish and confident one.
On the surface, it might seem redundant to complain about character development in a film like this, but I really wish more effort was made in this department. We learn little to nothing about Xin throughout the film’s 90-odd minutes. Generating sufficient motivation for an audience to root for a character doesn’t take much if done well, but “The Prey” does nothing to help us along the way here. He’s a good fighter and is willing to help others. And…that’s about as much as we learn about Xin over the film’s running time, and I’d like to have seen a little more effort to remedy this, especially when “T”, one of the hunters, is given his own, slightly jarring and ineffective, backstory. Ultimately, it can only amount to a small complaint in a film like this, but it could have been the difference between a good and a great movie.
Despite this, “The Prey” is confidently-made, well-paced, and will satisfy genre fans who are looking for an enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes. I’m unconvinced that it will have the same repeat-viewing potential as its regional action counterparts, and it’s lacking in compelling character work, but it should find an audience after its premiere here in Busan.