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As the Light Goes Out

Original title: Jiu huo ying xiong

aka Final Rescue

D: Chi-kin Kwok / 115m

Cast: Nicholas Tse, Shawn Yue, Simon Yam, Hu Jun, Bai Bing, William Chan, Andy On, Patrick Tam, Liu Kai-chi, Deep Ng, Michelle Wai, Kenny Kwan, Alice Li, Jackie Chan, Andrew Lau, Susan Shaw, Bonnie Xian

Three Hong Kong firefighters – Sam (Tse), Chill (Yue), and Yip (On) – ignore basic safety rules when dealing with a fire and are brought before a disciplinary hearing to answer for their actions. Chill takes the blame but the trio’s friendship is undermined by the experience, as it was Yip who should have admitted it was his decision to ignore the rules.

A year later it’s 24 December and Hong Kong is experiencing the hottest, most humid weather in recorded history, with the soaring temperatures and an approaching typhoon set to make conditions potentially very dangerous in the coming days. At Lung Kwu Tan fire station it’s Sam’s last day before transferring to another station. It’s a bittersweet occasion as he still works with Chill and Yip (who’s now his station boss). At the same time a new firefighter, a transfer from the mainland called Ocean (Jun), is in his early forties and quickly earns the animosity of Chill when he overreacts to a minor situation at the station.

Meanwhile, Lee’s son, Water (Vincent Lo) is on a school trip to the nearby Pillar Point power station. Along with another station, Pillar Point is responsible for around eighty per cent of the power for Kowloon but while the plant supervisor Man (Tam) is convinced of its capabilities, others are not so certain with the impending weather conditions about to converge. When a fire breaks out in a winery that is adjacent to the main gas pipe that feeds the power station, Sam and his team deal with the fire but have reservations as to whether or not they’ve fully dealt with the situation. Overruled by Yip, Sam remains doubtful but returns to the station.

While Water and his schoolmates are waiting to leave the power station, Sam’s doubts about the winery grow and while Yip is away at a function, he decides to return to the site. The winery warehouse proves to be alight and when efforts to shut off the gas pipe fail, the resulting explosion sends fiery shock waves along the pipe and into the power station, causing devastation and trapping Water and two of his schoolmates, as well as Man, two of his colleagues, and Tao (Yam), a fellow firefighter. Sam must mount a rescue mission to save them, all while encountering situations and dangers that preclude following the rules.

As the Light Goes Out - scene

Impressively mounted, As the Light Goes Out is the kind of disaster movie where the characters’ personal issues and their fears and insecurities are set out carefully from the beginning, only to be abandoned once a big fire breaks out. In fact, it’s the movie’s first half where the rivalries and animosities, all bubbling below the surface for the most part in true Hong Kong fashion, are explored that grabs the attention, even when the winery and its unfortunate location re: the gas pipe is discovered. While the viewer waits for the gas pipe to explode and the devastation to begin, the characters fall in and out with each other, and mistrust is either added to or begun. It’s the potential for emotional disaster that’s more intriguing: whether or not the raft of personal issues will override professional ethics and make the rescue effort more difficult.

Alas, under Kwok’s direction, the sterling effort put into setting up the characters – and Sam in particular – is put aside in favour of the type of selfless heroics that often defy logic and make the viewer wonder what all the fuss of the first hour was for. Even the callow Man steps up to the plate and has his moment of heroism, and while it makes a change to see such a rote character prove less than cowardly, when everyone is working together it actually lessens the drama; you need that sense that someone is going to endanger everyone else at some point in order to increase the tension. As it is, characters do die – one very, very predictably – but the movie lacks any emotional resonance on these occasions, and quickly moves on to the next dangerous situation with barely a backward glance.

As for the disaster itself, there’s the usual inevitability of man’s hubris coming back to bite him in the ass, and the pyrotechnics are suitably impressive, though the scale doesn’t seem quite as spectacular as it might have been. Once the gas pipe explodes and the power station blows up, the main enemy isn’t the fires that sporadically populate the inside of the station but the black smoke that seems to move around with a will of its own. Treated almost like a character itself, the smoke is ever-present at times but rarely proves a viable threat, so the rescuers and the rescued face peril instead from a variety of dangerous obstacles and missing walkways they have to find their way around. Cue some low-key heroics and hastily improvised solutions, and a sense that Jill Leung and Yung Tsz-kwong’s script was originally a firefighter drama that wasn’t intended to be the disaster epic it’s aiming for.

Uneven then, and with moments of unnecessary reflection amidst all the carnage, As the Light Goes Out isn’t the compelling drama it wants to be, and there’s too much that’s perfunctory to lift it out of the doldrums it runs into every now and then. The cast perform well but ultimately are restrained from doing any better because of the script’s need for them to become action heroes. Kwok’s direction is equally uneven and the pacing is off in several sequences that should be exciting but turn out to be surprisingly dull instead. There are better firefighter dramas out there – Ron Howard’s Backdraft (1991), Johnnie To’s Lifeline (1997) – and this may have had ambitions to join that select group, but sadly, the movie’s lack of focus and mishandled structure holds it back.

Rating: 5/10 – initially full of deft characterisations and engaging performances, As the Light Goes Out segues into its firefighting dramatics and promptly stalls; loud, impassioned, occasionally spectacular, this is a movie that promises much but rarely delivers (and did we really need kids in peril as well?).