Sky on Fire
Hong Kong/China, 2016, colour, 2.35:1, 95 mins.
Director: Lin Lingdong 林岭东 [Ringo Lam].
Messily written action-thriller set in a near-future Hong Kong has no direction or believable characters.
Hong Kong, the near future. When his younger half-sister Lin Xiaozhen (Guo Caijie) collapses while performing in street-opera, Taiwan lorry driver Lin Jia (Chang Xiaoquan), a former military engineer, rushes her to hospital, where she is diagnosed with cancer. The hospital recommends specialist treatment under a professor, Li Chang (Zhan Ruiwen), at the Biotechnology Research Centre. That night, a gang disguised as police hijacks a refrigeration van that contains “super stem cells” in blood serum developed by Sky One, a powerful pharmaceuticals company run by Tang Yongzhang (Fan Guangyao). Sky One security staff, led by Zong Tianbao (Wu Yanzu), arrive and unsuccessfully try to stop the hijack. The robbers, led by Pan Ziwen (Zhang Ruoyun), son of the late professor (Sun Limin) who originally developed the cancer-curing stem cells, take the van to Li Chang at the BRC. However, the Sky One team traces its whereabouts via a hidden transmitter and arrives at the BRC, where Lin Jia and Lin Xiaozhen are still trying to get to see Li Chang. In the ensuing chaos, Lin Jia helps the robbers drive the van away, with Pan Ziwen at the wheel. Meanwhile, Tang Yongzhang’s sickly wife, Gao Yu (Zhang Jingchu), who is head of Sky One’s medical-science department and who studied under Pan Ziwen’s father along with Tang, tries to commit suicide, depressed over being stuck in a now- loveless marriage to the money- and power-crazed Tang. She’s rescued at home by Zong Tianbao, whose own wife (Wei Shiya) died of cancer and who is becoming rapidly disillusioned with his job. Told that only Sky One can help his half-sister, Lin Jia forces the company to treat her by leading them to the group who stole the refrigeration van. Zong Tianbao goes along with him, but Tang Yongzhang also sends along a team of ruthless enforcers led by Wolf (Li Haitao). Pan Ziwen manages to escape with the blood serum, and Zong Tianbao has a major falling-out with Tang Yongzhang, who stole Pan’s original research five years ago and caused the laboratory fire in which he died. While Wolf & Co. hunt for Pan Ziwen, who has ended up with Lin Xiaozhen, Lin Jia hunts for his half-sister, whose lung cancer is now at an advanced stage and can only be cured by Gao Yu’s team at Sky One.
Any hopes that Hong Kong film-maker Lin Lingdong 林岭东 [Ringo Lam] would get back into top gear after his just-okay return to film-making with Wild City 迷城 (2015) are cruelly dashed by Sky on Fire 冲天火, a messily written action-thriller set in the near-future involving a nasty pharmaceutical giant, hijacked stem cells, and a lorry driver whose wife is dying of cancer. Much of the blame can be attached to the screenplay (by Lin, Hong Kong-based Japanese film-maker Fukazawa Dana 深泽宽, and China’s Shen Shiqi 沈诗琪 from TV drama), which has a way over-complicated first half with too many characters milling around, as well as a general lack of direction and believable characters one can empathise with.
The lack of direction is typified by an opening (and a Chinese title that means “Soaring Fire”) that leads the audience to expect a Towering Inferno-like finale in the Big Pharma’s HQ (“Sky One 天空一号: Asia’s most high-end scientific research centre, 888 metres high, 168 storeys”); but when the finale arrives, the script simply bottles out. After some confusing early flashbacks, the film starts to settle down around a Taiwan lorry driver (Taiwan’s Zhang Xiaoquan 张孝全 [Joseph Chang], who was much better as a psycho gangster in Wild City) whose younger half-sister is diagnosed with cancer and is recommended to see a professor at the Biotechnology Research Centre. Unfortunately, said professor is caught up in the hijack of some precious cancer-curing stem cells, and the lorry driver and his sister soon become involved as Big Pharma hunts them down.
The theme of ordinary people caught up by accident in a big, dangerous game is a familiar one in Lin’s past work – and also formed the basis of Wild City – but in Sky on Fire the characters are cut-outs, the setting is unbelievable, and the action largely recalls better movies. Overall, the action is better than Wild City‘s: an escape from the Sky One building, followed by a car chase and street shoot-out, around the hour mark, recalls classic, old-style Lin movies, and with all the crashing cars, explosions, dead bystanders and so on there’s a tangible nostalgia throughout the film for the good old days of Hong Kong action cinema.
Alas, the bits between the action are even cornier than Wild City‘s, with the focus veering back and forth between the lorry driver (Zhang attempting a working-class Taiwanese) and his dying sister (Taiwan’s Guo Caijie 郭采洁 [Amber Kuo] at her whiniest); the evil Big Pharma head (Fan Guangyao 樊光耀, also from Taiwan) and his doctor wife (China’s Zhang Jingchu 张静初, not looking happy in weird spectacles and head scarf); and the Big Pharma’s disillusioned security chief (US-born Wu Yanzu 吴彦祖 [Daniel Wu], not projecting much authority here) and the young hijacker (Mainland TV’s Zhang Ruoyun 张若昀, 28, in a respectable film debut). There’s no sense of natural progression to the screenplay, no sense of escalating drama or tension, and the “cancer cure” message is as unsubtle as the “money is the root of all evil” one in Wild City.
The vaguely “near-future” setting is largely achieved through copious use of TV surveillance screens, nowhere more impressively than in Sky One’s security HQ. Otherwise, it’s present-day Hong Kong as one knows it – enhanced by location work in Yilan, Taiwan, for the non-urban scenes. Widescreen photography by Hong Kong’s Cai Wenlong 蔡文龙 is closer to the classic Lin look than Ross W. Clarkson’s glossier work for Wild City (on which Cai was a cameraman), but has no overall tone, gritty or otherwise. The film’s English title simply hooks a free ride on earlier Lin movies like City on Fire 龙虎风云 (1987) and Prison on Fire 监狱风云 (1987). In China, Sky grossed a puny RMB36 million, only a quarter of Wild City‘s already modest amount.
Presented by Heli Chengguang International Culture Media (Beijing) (CN), Dongyang Hualu Baina Film & TV (CN), Maoyan Media (CN), Skyman Development (HK), H&R Century Pictures (CN). Produced by Skyman Development (HK).
Script: Lin Lingdong [Ringo Lam], Fukazawa Dana, Shen Shiqi. Photography: Cai Wenlong. Editing: David Richardson. Music: Dave Klotz. Art direction: Li Zifeng. Costumes: Li Zhanyu. Styling: Zhang Zhaokang. Sound: Liu Jianming, Napawat Likitwong. Action: Zhang Bingquan. Car stunts: Huo Yongfu. Visual effects: Luo Weihao (Different Digital Design). Executive direction: Qian Wenqi.
Cast: Wu Yanzu [Daniel Wu] (Zong Tianbao), Zhang Ruoyun (Pan Ziwen), Zhang Jingchu (Gao Yu), Zhang Xiaochuan [Joseph Chang] (Lin Jia), Guo Caijie [Amber Kuo] (Lin Xiaozhen/Jane), Fan Guangyao (Tang Yongzhang), Batu (cousin), Li Haitao (Da Lang/Wolf), Zhang Zhaohui [Eddie Cheung] (Dawei/David), Jiang Haowen [Philip Keung] (Weiwei), Li Yaoxiang (Ding), Zhan Ruiwen (Li Chang, professor), Hong Tianming (Yi), Zhong Jinghui (Zong Tianbao’s father), Tan Bingwen (Wang Yaocai), Huang Si’en (Laogui), Jiang Zuman (Xiaoli, female security staff), Chen Jiahuan (Xiaoyuan), Luo Haoming (Yali/Alec), Xu Weidong (Joe), Chen Xuanxi (An), Zhang Wenjie (Xiaojiang), Wei Shiya (Zong Tianbao’s wife), Zhen Maoqiang (Bao, police detective), Sun Limin (Pan Ziwen’s professor father).
Release: Hong Kong, 24 Nov 2016; China, 25 Nov 2016.