Director: Derek Kwok
Writer: Derek Kwok, Leung Lai Yin
Cast: Nicholas Tse, Shawn Yue, Simon Yam, Hu Jun, Patrick Tam, Liu Kai Chi, Andy On, Bai Bing, Michelle Wai, Deep Ng Ho Hong, Jackie Chan
Running Time: 116 min.
By Kyle Warner
There seems to be a shared belief among most filmgoers that firefighter dramas have nothing new to say or do. And while it’s true that As the Light Goes Out does occasionally tread on some familiar ground, it also proves that there are still new ideas for the fireman genre. Derek Kwok’s dreamlike visual style makes As the Light Goes Out a firefighter film unlike any other.
On one hot and steamy Christmas Eve, a Hong Kong firehouse responds to a warehouse inferno. They put out the flames, but their commander Sam (Nicholas Tse) is worried about the natural gas pipes nearby the structure. He’s about to order his men to secure the area when his superior, Yip (Andy On), arrives on scene and tells them not to bother. They’re expecting a visit from the higher-ups and Yip wants his men back at the firehouse to make a good impression.
Of course, the job left unfinished comes back to bite them. The fire reignites and it reaches the natural gas pipes, which lead to the city’s power station, eventually causing a massive blackout on one of the hottest nights of the year. Now Sam and his crew must rush to the power station where the fire rages and attempt to restore order to the city in darkness.
Director Derek Kwok (Gallants) infuses the movie with incredible visuals and a moody atmosphere. The debris and smoke swirls are abstract and the music is often eerie, lending the film an almost supernatural ambiance. The film opens with talk about how breathing in black smoke can lead to hallucinations and death. Occasionally, in the smokiest parts of the film, it’s like the characters are walking through a dreamscape while choking on death. It’s a frightening scenario, but it’s also kind of beautiful in a visual sense.
As the Light Goes Out also has a larger scope than most firefighter dramas. The stakes are high and the city itself feels the impact of the fires, not just those trapped in the building. It’s a big, loud film with some awesome sets and action sequences.
The script could’ve used a bit of work, though. While I responded to the band of brothers’ sacrifice and heroics, I felt the film tried too hard to add more and more drama where it wasn’t needed. One guy’s breaking up with his girlfriend on Christmas Eve, another guy’s dealing with a struggling marriage, and another man is haunted by memories of the son he couldn’t save from a fire. Most the drama between the leads originates from the film’s prologue. Something goes wrong on a call and a review board interrogates Yip, Sam, and the film’s other lead, Chill (Shawn Yue). It’s clear that somebody needs to take the fall for the screw up, so Chill tells the review board he was the one responsible for the mission going off course. A year later and it’s still a source of tension in the firehouse. A bit of conflict between our heroes is all well and good, but we get it in the form of an infodump so early on in the film. It never really connects with the viewer. Instead it stunts the drama, making the conflict between the characters feel more like a distraction than anything else.
Still, the actors do their best to make the strained character relations work. Nicholas Tse is great in a restrained performance as Sam, a man just trying to do the right thing. Shawn Yue is good as the conflicted Chill. Simon Yam plays an aging hero who feels challenged by the Mainland China import Ocean (Hu Jun). Yam’s great, playing the tough guy who’s well past his prime. But it’s Hu Jun who makes the biggest impression, bringing a steely resolve to a character that might’ve been difficult to believe in with a less capable actor. Jun’s Ocean may be the ultimate firefighter, what with his photographic memory of building blueprints, superman strength, and lone wolf survival skills. It’s a big character but Jun’s excellent in the role. Sadly, one can’t throw many compliments Andy On’s way, who fails to bring Yip to life. Andy On also frequently switches from Cantonese to English in the middle of multiple scenes, which I found distracting.
We also get an amusing cameo from Jackie Chan early in the film. He appears in a firefighter recruitment video with his Police Story theme song playing in the background. Jackie says, “The Fire Department needs you!” and the TV spot ends, leading one of the firemen to question the logic of casting Jackie Chan in the recruitment vid. “But isn’t Jackie Chan from Police Story?” It’s a brief but entertaining moment in an otherwise dark and somber film.
Though the character dynamics do not connect the way one might’ve wished, there’s enough beneath the surface to make the film work as more than just ‘style over substance.’ But make no mistake, the reason to see the movie is because of its visual flourishes.
When you get right down to it, As the Light Goes Out is just a cool movie. It doesn’t break any new ground (though, one can see the director was trying), it doesn’t have the deepest story or characters, and it may not unseat Backdraft or Hong Kong’s own Lifeline as the most popular firefighter film. But it’s an impressively made movie, full of suspense, cool special effects, and fast-paced action. I really liked it.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 7/10