As the Light Goes Out
Hong Kong/China, 2014, colour, 2.35:1, 116 mins.
Director: Guo Zijian 郭子健 [Derek Kwok].
Firefighting-cum-disaster movie lacks human drama and real scope.
Hong Kong, 2012. After a group of firemen break procedure in order to save lives, You Bangchao (Yu Wenle) takes the fall for his colleagues He Yongsen (Xie Tingfeng) and Ye Zhihui (An Zhijie), but gets little thanks for it. A year later, on 24 Dec 2013, it is the hottest Christmas Eve on record, with fireballs striking the city. Ye Zhihui has now risen to assistant divisional officer at Longgutan [Lung Kwu Tan] Fire Station, above both senior fire captain He Yongsen and fire captain You Bangchao. He Yongsen is soon to be transferred, while veteran fireman Li Peidao (Ren Dahua) is due to retire. Among those joining the station that day are Zhang Wenjian (Chen Weiting) and Mainlander Haiyang (Hu Jun). You Bangchao clandestinely uses a station vehicle to drive his young son, You Shui (Lu Songheng), to a school outing at Pillar Point Power Station, and is late arriving on the scene when his colleagues, led by He Yongsen, are called out to deal with a fire at Woo Fat Hing Winery, run by Mrs. Qiu (Shao Yinyin). Afterwards, He Yongsen decides not to investigate another potential hazard at the site, in a septic tank near a natural gas pipe. At Central Computer Control Headquarters, which manages the power supply to Hong Kong and is the most sophisticated station of its kind in Asia, chief engineer Yang Lin (Bai Bing), a Mainlander, notices the natural gas pipe is registering a fault. He Yongsen has already decided to re-visit the winery for a second look at the problem but is asked by Ye Zhihui to wait, so as not to disrupt an official visit to the station by the chief financial officer. He Yongsen refuses and takes his team to deal with the problem, which now threatens Pillar Point Power Station where You Bangchao’s son and two schoolfriends have become trapped. To avert a disaster, Yang Lin and Haiyang turn off the natural gas pipe. This, however, causes a blackout across the city, so Yang Lin’s boss, Wan Huabiao (Tan Yaowen), orders it to be turned back on. Meanwhile, Ye Zhihui arrives at Pillar Point Power Station to confront He Yongsen over his insubordination. And a typhoon is on its way towards Hong Kong.
Hong Kong faces fireballs, an exploding power plant, a city blackout and worse (a typhoon is also on its way) in As the Light Goes Out 救火英雄, a firefighter-cum-disaster movie that spends more time on bromance than thrill-and-spills. Coming only three months after the surprisingly good genre exercise Out of Inferno 3D 逃出生天 (2013), set just across the border in Guangzhou, China, this firemen film by writer-director Guo Zijian 郭子健 [Derek Kwok] focuses on smoke rather than flames as the true enemy; but his different approach is let down by weak dialogue, over-jittery editing, and a lack of any sense of geography to the action. The action is spectacular enough when it comes but the characters don’t get room to breathe; and while the interior sets are impressive, the abundance of close-up camerawork doesn’t make the most of them.
Apart from his associate director credit on Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons 西游 降魔篇 (2013), Guo has so far worked on small, character-driven films – notably the offbeat youth-crime drama The Pye-Dog 野•良犬 (2007) and retro martial arts comedy Gallants 打擂台 (2010), the latter co-directed by Zheng Sijie 郑思杰 [Clement Cheng] – that have earned him an exaggerated local reputation but haven’t exactly been strong on script construction. The screenplay, co-written with Liang Liyan 梁礼彦 [Jill Leung] and Weng Ziguang 翁子光 [Philip Yung], both of Rigor Mortis 僵尸 (2013), is the weakest element in Light, setting up career tensions between three firemen in a prologue but unable to develop them later on the broader canvas of a disaster movie.
Part of that failure is due to the casting. Xie Tingfeng 谢霆锋 [Nicholas Tse], Yu Wenle 余文乐 [Shawn Yue] and An Zhijie 安志杰 [Andy On] don’t cut very believable or charismatic characters as the feuding/bromancey trio, and are regularly upstaged by veteran Ren Dahua 任达华 [Simon Yam] as their grizzly colleague and especially by China’s physically impressive Hu Jun 胡军 as a can-do fireman from the Mainland. Of the three, Yu (who worked with Guo on his crime drama The Moss 青苔, 2008) comes across best as a devoted father whose young son gets trapped in a power plant; Xie lacks any sense of grit and Chinese American An is all one-note ambition, distractingly switching between Cantonese and English at a moment’s notice.
Female roles are beyond token, apart from China’s Bai Bing 白冰 (the wife in rom-com Mr. & Mrs. Single 隐婚男女, 2011) as a chief engineer who forms a kind of Mainland power-pairing with Hu’s firefighter while the locals bicker away. In fact, it’s the linguistic tension between Cantonese-speaking Hong Kongers and Mandarin-speaking Mainlanders that gives the movie some of its most right-on moments, with Hu and Bai ticked off for not using the local dialect and them defending their use of putonghua.
D.p. Guan Zhiyao 关智耀 [Jason Kwan], who’s worked regularly on comedies by Peng Haoxiang 彭浩翔 [Pang Ho-cheung] and in tandem with other cameramen on the larger Dear Enemy 亲密敌人 (2011), The Last Tycoon 大上海 (2012) and Cold War 寒战 (2012), provides a grey, ashy pallette in many of the interiors but is too often called upon just to get in close with the action. Further working against the film is the weird scoring, which veers between Carl Orff-like music and (most pretentious of all) a French chanson. Though Light isn’t especially bad as a genre movie, it’s also not especially good, and is certainly no threat to Lifeline 十万火急 (1997) as the premier Hong Kong firefighting film. There’s a sense throughout that Guo just isn’t up to the demands of a big-budget production like this.
Cheng Long 成龙 [Jackie Chan], director Liu Weiqiang 刘伟强 [Andrew Lau] and veteran actress Shao Yinyin 邵音音 [Susan Shaw] (Gallants) pop up in cameos. The Chinese title means “Firefighting Heroes”, but it’s the sense of real heroism that the film most lacks.
Presented by Emperor Classic Films (HK), Media Asia Film Production (HK), Zhujiang Film Group (CN).
Script: Guo Zijian [Derek Kwok], Liang Liyan [Jill Leung], Weng Ziguang [Philip Yung]. Photography: Guan Zhiyao [Jason Kwan]. Editing: Huang Hai, Xu Weijie [Matthew Hui]. Music: Guan Weipeng [Teddy Robin], Wei Qiliang [Tommy Wai]. Production design: Lin Ziqiao. Art direction: Li Zifeng. Costumes: Feng Junmeng, Guan Meibao. Sound: Zheng Yingyuan [Phyllis Cheng]. Action: Huang Weiliang [Jack Wong]. Car stunts: Li Zhaoguang. Visual effects: Huang Zhiheng [Henri Wong] (Post Production Office).
Cast: Xie Tingfeng [Nicholas Tse] (He Yongsen/Sam, senior fire captain), Yu Wenle [Shawn Yue] (You Bangchao/Chill, fire captain), Ren Dahua [Simon Yam] (Li Peidao, firefighting corps head), Hu Jun (Haiyang/Ocean, firefighter), Bai Bing (Yang Lin, Central Computer Control chief engineer), Chen Weiting (Zhang Wenjian, firefighter), An Zhijie [Andy On] (Ye Zhihui, assistant divisional officer), Tan Yaowen (Wan Huabiao, Central Computer Control chief), Liao Qizhi [Liu Kai-chi] (Tan Zhigang/CJ, chief fire officer), Wu Haokang (Lin Wenbin, fire captain), Guan Zhibin (Xiaoqiao), Cheng Long [Jackie Chan] (fireman in TV promo), Liu Weiqiang [Andrew Lau] (Fang, fire-station head), Shao Yinyin [Susan Shaw] (Mrs. Qiu, winery owner), Xian Seli (Ye Zhihui’s wife), Wei Shiya (power plant employee), Luo Shi (Emily), Lu Songheng (You Shui, You Bangchao’s son).
Release: Hong Kong, 2 Jan 2014; China, 3 Jan 2014.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 11 Mar 2014.)