It sounds kind of crazy: allow a prisoner early release if he's able to beat everyone else up. It's counter-intuitive to think that the prisoner should be released after proving he's stronger and faster and more violent than the rest of the inmates. However, because the practice of Muay Thai is so respected in Thailand, the training and fighting are closer to religious than violent, the Thai prison system set up and celebrates the "Prison Fight".

Muay Thai, according to legend, can be traced back to a Thai warrior named Nai Khanomtom. He was captured by enemies, but after he beat ten of their best fighters in a row, they granted him his freedom. That story is recycled in modern Thailand, as muay thai fighters in prison get the chance to participate in a Prison Fight tournament, with victory resulting in a full royal pardon.

Most of this documentary focuses on Noy Khaopan. Noy is in prison for murder, which makes the reduction of his sentence more controversial than some winners in the past who were busted for drugs or other offences. Before he went to prison, he had dropped out of school in 2nd grade (!), been in and out of smaller trouble, but had discovered fighting was what he could do best. An altercation at a bar ended with him stabbing the victim, and being sentenced to 11 years.

The Prison Fight process actually recruits foreign fighters to go up against the inmates, so it is less like the scenario I described of a "last inmate standing" kind of thing. Noy is facing an American from Kansas, who feels he is fighting for the victim and the family. Their side paints a darker picture of the bar fight that left their son dead.

The fact that the documentary devotes some time to hearing their side of the story actually puts a lot of tension into the final match. You're kind of rooting for Noy, a guy who seems to be remorseful for what he did, a guy who appears to be ready to go back into public life, a guy who has barely seen his child over the past five years. You feel bad for him, you feel bad for the boy growing up without a father, you feel bad for the grandparents trying to raise a child without really letting on that his daddy did a bad thing. Then suddenly you remember, he murdered someone. An 11-year prison sentence for murder seems pretty light to begin with, then this fight could cut six years off, and you're just left shaking your head.

The final fight was pretty intense, and had me on the edge of my seat. No spoilers obviously, you have to watch yourself.

[Celluloid Hero] gives "Prison Fighters: Five Rounds to Freedom" a 7 out of 10.




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