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Still best-known for their supernatural thrillers — their 2002 outing The Eye remains a touchstone in the genre, and they can boast of having directed a pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart in the haunted-farmhouse gig The Messengers — Hong Kong’s sibling director duo Oxide and Danny Pang made their name with effects-laden spectacles exploring the inexplicable. More worryingly, however, their recent outings have veered toward being merely inexplicable spectacles — a term which is more than apt in describing Out of Inferno, a piece mixing scorching imagery, shallow characterization and sizeable plot holes that could easily swallow up the army of firefighters trying to quench the staggering furnace being rendered onscreen.
It’s not the first time the Pangs — or, the Pang brothers, as they are usually known at home — have run into a similar rut. While acknowledged as Hong Kong’s first homegrown 3D paranormal thriller, their 2010 Bangkok-set Child’s Eye — which screened out of competition at the Venice Film Festival — was much maligned for a slight screenplay that floundered in its attempt to establish a convincing ghost story amid a real-life social backdrop (the political tumult which was engulfing the Thai capital at that time). Out of Inferno seems destined for the same fate, as its standing as a state-of-the-art showcase of 3D visuals is undermined by a story purporting to say a lot but ending up articulating almost nothing.
Viewers interested in the procedures of firefighting will certainly find a lot to savor here, as the Pangs have delivered sequences that offer meticulous depictions of the work of firefighters — or, to be exact, those serving the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, where the story is set. Municipal officials would be very proud of the professionalism on show, as the first third of Out of Inferno trots out a fleet of spanking new fire engines and an army of dedicated blaze-stoppers — among which we find the film’s two protagonists, brothers Tai-kwan (Sean Lau Ching-wan) and his younger brother Keung (Louis Koo Tin-lok).
Sibling rivalry comes to the fore early, as the former’s stoic, by-the-book ethos is frowned upon by the latter, whose frustration leads him to quit his job and start anew at their uncle’s fire protection systems business. When the narrative proper begins, four years have passed, with Tai-kwan still earning his living as a firefighter — something which dismays his pregnant wife, Si-lok (Lee Sinje) — and Keung now a flashy, high-flying entrepreneur preparing to open his new offices atop a skyscraper that serves as an exemplar for his company’s high-end fire-prevention systems.
Perhaps serving as an indictment of those galling enough to abandon public service for private profit-making ventures, Keung’s world falls apart as coincidences — and there’s a lot of them — lead to the whole building going up in flames on the same day he is to entertain potential investors at his new headquarters.
As he runs for his life, he accumulates a group of survivors: there’s Si-lok, of course, and her cowardly gynecologist; a couple who have lost their child in the chaos; a father-and-son pair of security guards; and two rough diamond cutters fleeing for their lives with the booty they stole from their dank workshop.
Working his way up the building with his squadron, Tai-kwan soon locates the group and helps them negotiate cranes, falling debris and harrowing lift shafts in order to escape the conflagration. While their escapade looks daunting and the inferno appears monstrously real, authentic emotions are at a premium throughout. It’s as if the Pangs have set out to reimagine fire as the embodiment of the repressed fears that shape the beasts lurking in their horror films. The platoon of side characters tagging along with the siblings are just ciphers deployed to evoke cliched plot points — the bond between father and son, the longing of a mother for her daughter, the hypocritical doctor rediscovering his Hippocratic ideals — and even the siblings’ conflicts remain underdeveloped, their different ways of perceiving public and personal duties never really going beyond the hackneyed question (as posed by Keung and then Si-lok to Tai-kwan) about whether one is to save first a stranger-in-need or one’s next-of-kin.
That Tai-kwan’s inclination is toward the former speaks much about Out of Inferno’s ideological underpinnings: However much the Pangs insert distinct iconography that marks their film as a piece of Hong Kong cinema — the main cast are mostly drawn from the city and speak Hong Kong-accented Cantonese — the rigid advocacy for organizational protocol (as embodied by Tai-kwan) over rash but oh-so-human impulses (manifested in the volatile and free-thinking Keung) is more in tune with the politically correct template of officially sanctioned mainland Chinese cinema.
Peter Kam and Wong Kin-wai’s overbearing score accentuates the forced emotional bombast on display, and somehow only highlights the lack of authentic humanity throughout. In a way, Out of Inferno is in line with most of the Pangs’ scarier outings of the past decade; just like, say, The Messengers or Child’s Eye offer the odd jolt to the viewer within a generally sagging narrative, Out of Inferno’s sporadic, tight action sequences (deftly choreographed by Dion Lam, who did his thing for The Storm Riders and Infernal Affairs) are never matched by a consistently engaging story. So the flames and the firefighting might look staggering, but what this film needs is the presence of full-fleshed, fiery souls.
Production: Universe Entertainment, Sun Entertainment Group, Bona Film Group, Golala Investment Company
Director: Oxide Pang and Danny Pang
Cast: Sean Lau, Louis Koo, Lee Sinje, Chen Sicheng, Eddie Cheung, Crystal Lee
Producers: Daneil Lam, Alvin Chow, Yu Dong
Executive Producers: Alvin Lam, Oxide Pang, Danny Pang
Screenwriterd: Szeto Kam-yuen, Nicholl Tang, Danny Pang, Oxide Pang, Ng Mang-cheung
Director of Cinematography: Fletcher Poon
Editor: Curran Pang
Action Director: Dion Lam
Music: Peter Kam, Wong Kin-wai
International Sales: Universal Entertainment
No rating, 107 minutes
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