There’s something uniquely fascinating about firefighters. When they arrive on a scene, they aren’t armed to the teeth and ready to take down some villain; they are there to save lives. That’s pretty much their entire job. Whether that is by putting out fires so they don’t spread, running into burning buildings to find people trapped in the blaze, or bringing kittens down from high up branches so little old ladies don’t die from loneliness, they are there for the sole purpose of minimizing body count.
This doesn’t make them better than police officers or soldiers or other armed forces, but when the bad guy is thick smoke, no one is going to think about its family when it is ultimately taken down. No one feels bad for a fire. There is only the heroism of the people who stop it.
As the Light Goes Out taps into that heroism, although its portrayal of the people beneath the helmets isn’t always the most sympathetic.
[For the next month, we will be covering the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival and the Japan-centric Japan Cuts. Click here for more information, and check back here and here for all of the Asian film coverage you can shake a stick at.]
As the Light Goes Out (救火英雄)
Director: Derek Kwok
Country: Hong Kong/China
As is often the case, As the Light Goes Out is centered around a series of unfortunate events. It’s Christmas (which I would have never known if they didn’t keep repeating it, because Hong Kong is close to the equator and there’s not a snowflake in sight), so the availability of power is more important than usual. But a fire near an oil pipe causes some problems that result in a power plant explosion followed by a mass blackout.
Hong Kong does have female firefighters, but there are none to be found in As the Light Goes Out. This movie is all men all the time doing all sorts of manly things like digging and carrying people. It’s not quite the fireman porn that some might be looking for, with its notable lack of glistening bare chests and bulging biceps. But if men-in-uniform is your thing, then there’s still plenty for you here. And these manly men have all sorts of manly problems.
The official NYAFF description says the members of the fire squad suffer from “man angst,” and I’m inclined to agree. Haunted by visions of the past and former fights, these men are often at each others’ throats trying to prove to each other (and to themselves) that they are worthy of their station. There’s the grizzled veteran trying to prove that he’s still number one, the man on his last day who decides to go out just one last time, the hardheaded new guy, and all of the other clichés that you probably grumble about like but secretly love. Each character gets their big moment to shine; unfortunately, not all of them survive.
Early on, a time skip turns the film into an advertisement for the fire department. But initially there’s no indication that it is an ad, and suddenly meteors fall from the sky and begin to destroy Hong Kong. I groaned, because those effects really weren’t all that good, and not having read the synopsis, I thought that the movie had just gone from 0 to 60 and this is what I was in for. Fortunately, it went back to normal after a brief cameo by Jackie Chan. My fears were assuaged. Some of the characters watching the ad even joked about how overblown the visuals were.
Little did I know that this was a sign of things to come. While meteors didn’t fall from the sky, the second half of As the Lights Go Out is a veritable smorgasboard of visual effects. Once that plant goes up in flames, there’s probably not a single shot that goes by without some sort of special effect, practical or otherwise. Fortunately, they’re generally pretty good. A few moments are subpar and don’t quite work, but the ones that matter are all enough to make the drama and intensity feel real, especially as the fire begins to take its toll.
But that intensity is mitigated somewhat by As the Light Goes Out’s slowness. Even amidst a raging fire, the film periodically stops to let the drama play out, and I really mean stop, thanks to the most excessive use of slow motion since 300. This happens most frequently amidst the “thick smoke,” which the film’s opening text presents as the true nemesis of a firefighter. In the thick smoke, visibility goes down to zero, and trying to breathe without a special apparatus means near-instant death.
When the firemen step into the smoke, everything else disappears. It’s a nice effect, the first time. But it happens over and over again, when you just want to get back to the action. The big climax, a moment that should be extremely emotional, becomes excruciating because a 30-second sequence takes five minutes (and feels like ten). It’s too slow, and it happens too often. It has an unfortunate consequence of making the whole film feel far longer than it is.
Even so, As the Light Goes Out is worth seeing because it scratches an itch. I can think of dozens of cop movies (especially from Hong Kong), but firefighters are underrepresented in cinema. This is likely in part due to the big-budget requirements of big fire-centric sequences, but whatever the reason, it makes this film stand out. Not all of the beats hit their mark, but it’s still one heck of a ride.