As the Light Goes Out (Gau Fo Ying Hung): Film Review

Emperor Film Production Company, Media Asia Film Production Company, Zhujiang Film Group
"As the Light Goes Out"
Early suggestions of a nuanced personal drama get overwhelmed by pyrotechnics, red-herring threads and inexplicable plot twists. 

Hong Kong A-listers Nicholas Tse and Shawn Yue join forces with stalwarts Simon Yam and Hu Jun in Derek Kwok's firefighter drama.

Another week, another on-screen depiction of Hong Kong confronting an apocalypse of sorts. Following swiftly on the city's central business district being reduced to rubble in the cops-and-robbers spectacle Firestorm, young filmmaker Derek Kwok arrives to switch Christmas-time Hong Kong off with an action-thriller that aims to combine explosive pyrotechnics with a taut drama about high-strung, damaged souls.

A joining of forces between two of Hong Kong's major film production outfits -- with Emperor Motion Pictures represented on screen by its star Nicholas Tse (Bodyguards and Assassins) and Media Asia's presence  felt through Shawn Yue (Love in a Puff ) -- As the Light Goes Out is a dazzling display of cinematic craft. While one of the most versatile filmmakers in the field today -- his filmography includes understated noir (The Moss), pop romance (Frozen), laugh-out-loud comedy (Gallants) and VFX-laden blockbusters (Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, co-directed with Stephen Chow) -- Kwok seems to have fallen victim of his own ambitions. By over-burdening Light with one too many unnecessary and undercooked tangents, he and his screenwriters Jill Leung and PhilipYung have distracted the film from becoming simply a neat and simple story about fear, anxiety and guilt among a group of firefighters confronting what should be the defining battle of their lives.

Still, As the Light Goes Out remains markedly more substantial and fulfilling than the Pang Brothers' visually bombastic but emotionally lightweight blaze-wrestling 3-D spectacle Out of Inferno from just three months ago. Whether Kwok's film, which unspools in sneak previews in Hong Kong starting Dec. 24 before officially opening in the city on Jan. 2, can generate strong box-office traction depends on the local audience's willingness to retry the firefighter-drama subgenre, which has been revisited several times on film (most memorably in Johnnie To's 1997 film Lifeline) and on terrestrial TV serials in recent years. Viewers in mainland China, where the film will bow on Jan. 7, might warm to the film thanks a key subplots driven by two of their own: an earnest and sturdy mainland Chinese with an amazing physique and extraordinary capacity in mapping out smoke-filled buildings, and a perceptive electric Shanghainese engineer defying her cynical Hong Kong supervisor to avert impending disaster.

Kwok's knack for subverting conventions is very much evident early in the film. In the film's post-title scene, a voiceover speaks of how Hong Kong is seemingly braving for a doomsday scenario as temperatures hit a whopping 93 degrees on Christmas Eve. Barely has the newcaster's voice drifted off that burning meteors begin raining down on the city to set it ablaze. And then Jackie Chan, dressed up in firefighting gear, appears -- not to save the day, but to invite people to sign up for a career in the fire brigade.

Zooming out of the image, a group of young firemen are seen ridiculing the over-the-top nature of this public service announcement: manning one of Hong Kong's most far-flung fire stations, the firefighters are seen whiling their time away exchanging easy banter, doing repetitive training drills or making soup.

The last task is the handiwork of Sam (Tse), an officer spending the last day at his posting and facing yet another twist in his spiralling career - a tailspin which began, as shown in the film's opening sequence, when he and his hot-headed colleague Chill (Shawn Yue) were sold out by their cadet-school classmate Yip (Andy On) in an internal investigation about a botched rescue attempt. Yip has since stolen his rival's rising-star thunder and, having risen above him to become stationmaster, slyly maneuvers Sam's transfer to another even more obscure posting.

Thus begins what appears to be an uneventful Christmas Eve for the characters, as Sam's preparations for departure juxtaposed with the introduction of the film's many different threads. Ever the rule-breaker for better or worse, Chill is seen driving one of the fire trucks to transport his son to a school visit of a power plant; old-timer Tao (Simon Yam) is given some competition by the arrival of the po-faced (and incredibly strong) former mainland Chinese firefighter Ocean (Hu Jun), with the pair's meet-cute – their bonding certainly sizzles with homoerotic frisson – taking the form of a stair-climbing race and shaped up by some of the rookies as a showdown between Hong Kong and mainland China.

Tao and Ocean's professional pair-up is interesting, as it highlights the need for collaboration between the pair (and the two entities they represent) than competition - a notion most certainly at ease with the film's position as a mainland-Hong Kong co-production (Emperor and Media Asia co-produced the film with China's Zhujiang Film Group). It's a thread brought further into focus later in the power plant, where visiting engineer Yang Lin (Bai Bing) emerges as the only dissenting voice when the manager (Patrick Tam) insists in pushing the facilities' output to the max so as to protect his job but at the risk of reigniting a winery blaze which Sam, Chill and his company have just fought hard to contain.

Up until this juncture, the film remains very promising. The personality clashes reveal characters weighed down by the errors of their past, as seen in Sam's messy state of mind when he questions his wisdom of that one episode in which he jettisoned his (and Chill's) by first not doing things by the book, and then the demanding circumstances of the present, when everybody who's anybody is trying their best (or worst) by staying on-message and in the good grace of the powers that be.

Ironically, As the Light Goes Out begins to veer out of control when it expands into a full-blown disaster movie. With the narrative confined to one single night, too much is allowed to happen after that first fire at the liquor production factory. As one thing leads to another and finally a worst case scenario which leads to Hong Kong falling into a complete blackout, but not before the abrupt death of one of the protagonists; the fact that this incident barely registered throughout the second half of the film highlights how the film is overwhelmed by one too many distracting and unnecessary plot points (most of which aim at consolidating the firefighters' role also as flawed fathers and boyfriends).

The film also subverts its own early-stage humor about clichéd images of heroism, as cataclysmic situations bring out ever more extraordinary (and unbelievable) deeds. But as the on-screen calamities become ever more awe-inspiring, some of the action scenes have in turn become too quick to be deciphered clearly, rendering some of Eric Lam's production designer obsolete. The audio-visual cacophony has unfortunately submerged what could have been a tight study of values and virtues in peril, with the film weighed down by an excess of dangling threads, nick-of-time interventions and cliffhanger moments resolved by logic-defying acts.


Venue: Gala Premiere, Hong Kong, Dec. 19

Production Companies: Emperor Film Production Company, Media Asia Film Production Company, Zhujiang Film Group

Director: Derek Kwok

Cast: Nicholas Tse, Shawn Yue, Simon Yam, Hu Jun, Bai Bing, Andy On

Producers: Albert Lee, David Chan, Zhao Jun

Executive Producers: Albert Yeung, Peter Lam, Li He

Screenwriters: Jill Leung, Philip Yung with Derek Kwok

Director of Photography: Jason Kwan

Editor: Wong Hoi

Production Designer: Eric Lam

Costume Designer: William Fung, Mabel Kwan

Music: Teddy Robin, Tomy Wai

International Sales: Emperor Motion Pictures

In Cantonese and Mandarin

118 minutes