China – and by extension Asian – disaster movies have a bit of a fascination around fire. Instead of seeing it as a controllable thing, they see fire and smoke as an entity. That brings a unique slant to the big budget firefighting movie ‘As The Light Goes Out’ in which the black smoke the fire emits is as much of a character as the humans escaping it.
The disasters faced
A natural gas plant exploding spectacularly, corporate greed and corruption, terrible water based naming conventions, mystical black smoke, toxic chemical reactions and the firemans code of ‘wait til help arrives’.
One part soap opera, two parts firefighter disaster movie, As The Light Goes Out kicks off with all of the drama from the outset. Sam, Chill and Yip are all involved were all involved in a fire a year ago whereby they broke the firemans code. They went back into a fire to try to save someone when they should have waited and in doing so were caught up in a huge dust explosion. The fire chiefs take this breach of conduct seriously and Chill takes the wrap effectively ending his promotion chances, whilst Sam is injured and sidelined. This means that Yip, who stayed quiet throughout is left to take the Divisional Officer job and hasn’t stopped gloating in it since.
Flashforward a year and a new fire breaks out on the day new recuits Ocean and Chueng join. Ocean is a gung ho kinda guy who seems like he is one step away from killing himself at every turn. This does not impress Principle Fireman Lee as whilst it may look impressive but having dealt with all this a year ago, everyone is much more cautious to start breaking protocol now – especially as Yip is entertaining higher ups.
The problem is that the fire is next to the natural gas pipeline that feeds directly into the nearby gas plant. The gas plant has sensors in place so know there is trouble but the manager Man Wah-Bill doesn’t want a blackout on Christmas Eve. His nearest colleagues are more safety conscious though and so assistants Yang and Lam try to shut down the gaslines. When Man finds out what is going on, he turns everything back on again and kaboom!
Did I mention Chill’s son Water (yes that is his name) was left behind at the gas plant after his school trip with two of his mates?
What follows is a mixture of different stories.
Yip is angry at Sam for going against orders again to check on the gas pipe but that’ll be the least of their worries when blows up. When the gas pipe and then plant explodes Firefighters Ocean, Cheung are trapped inside with Lam and Yang. Man and his assistant Tsz Ying and associates are trapped in an elevator. Outside Chill goes rogue to find the three lost children including his son Water – but we don’t know where Water is trapped. Sam is left to co-ordinate the rescue teams outside but as its Christmas Eve, help is stuck in traffic. Does he go against orders again?
Why is it worth watching?
As The Light Goes Out works on several different layers.
Firstly as a fireman movie, its full of characters at work and quotable jargon. You have the old master, the rookie, the quiet and solemn one, the teachers pet, the underdog and so on. They all play their role and do so very well. Whilst the movie relies on a lot of cinematic flair for stunts and drama, it really feels caked in soot and grime.
What distinguishes it from other fireman movies is the Chinese approach to black smoke – its almost mythical. The last time I saw smoke acting with such poise and lurch was when we had the smoke monster in Lost. Characters talk about black smoke like a mythical being hunting you down to kill you. The film also uses a special effect when smoke or darkness envelopes then that puts you in a wavy grey vision. It may sound like a weird comparison but video games often use a similar tactic when you have ghost, gouls or wraiths encircling you. This looks and feels no different. The effect and the nods to the spiritual side of fire permeates across the film and it feels like a fresh and unique take on the genre.
That aside, Asian cinema love its hyper drama, with long drawn out heroic death sequences, a fair bit of screaming and euphoric crying. As The Light Goes Out lives up to that reputation and provides ample amounts of both. Thankfully, most of the characters have a decent personality so you can go along for the ride with them.
The fires sparked in this film are generally impressive and so are the sets. You can tell what is real versus what is CGI though and some of the bigger explosions stand out as CGI moments because of how good the normal sets look. The black smoke by its design and movement looks heavily computerised and initially I found it quite jarring when I first watched the film. Once I had gotten used to how stylised it was, I was less bothered by it though – especially when you’ve got characters being blasted around the screen between shots.
What I found interesting about the film is that it investigates at what point characters will swap protocol for what morally feels right. Some like Ocean and Yang might drop protocol to follow what they believe is right immediately but other characters may want motivation elsewhere. For Chill its his son and that feels straightforward but for Lee and Sam as examples, I found it interesting to see them topple over from one side to other slowly. When i viewed the film through that lense, each character became a lot more interesting to me – particularly when it comes China (and the film is based in Hong Kong) where family name and honour carries far more weight. I also really appreciated just how horrible Man was. I couldn’t wait for him to get some kind of comeuppance!
What a creep! No wonder your wife left you!Water – speaking to his father chill.
Three memorable moments
- The gas plant explosion is huge.
- The section where our trapped survivors have to cross some compromised catwalks.
- The hilarious firefighter recruitment commercial that stars Jackie Chan!
The obligatory weird moment
Whilst the movie revels in some surrealist imagery, I have always found it strange when I see firefighters smoking. Surely, you’d want to keep your lungs in as best health as possible because you are going to need them! Smoking is a recurring theme across this movie and it gives it a sentimental and poetic reason each time Lee decides to light up. I’d have just thought their lungs were getting enough crap from the (not so) 9-5 job…
The drinking game
Is that a slow motion shot I see on the screen? The film is ladled with angry rain shots, slow motion smoke, flashbacks and visions. Take a shot each time and you’ll be taken by the alcoholic darkness before the smoke gets you.
Whilst some of its drama focused moments feel a little overwrought, when its fire focused, As The Light Goes Out is an excellent movie to enjoy. Just give it a little slack if you aren’t into making smoke sentient or you don’t want to have some poetic moments to classical music dotted around your apocalypses.
Rating – 3 / 5 Good
If you liked As The Light Goes Out then you may like…
- The Tower – Korean Tower Inferno movie is an all time favourite of mine
- Out of Inferno – Chinese movie with a very similar set up released just before this
- Only The Brave – The true story of Granite Mountain Hotshots battling the 2013 wildfires.