Dispelling much of the smoke around most cinematic depictions of firefighting, “As the Light Goes Out” reps an authentic-looking entry in the genre, delving into its characters’ physical ordeals and psychological hangups with gritty realism. Up-and-coming Hong Kong helmer Derek Kwok imbues his pyrotechnic spectacles with noirish flair and a sharp sense of danger, though an excess of technical exposition at times douses the story’s momentum. Although it underperformed in China, the pic has spent three weeks atop the Hong Kong B.O. with a cume of more than $3 million, and should continue to burn bright in Asian markets.
Outclassing last year’s overwrought fire-disaster blockbusters (Kim Ji-hoon’s “The Tower,” the Pang Brothers’ “Out of Inferno 3D”) “As the Light Goes Out” offers a welcome reality check in a genre that typically extols team spirit, as Kwok tracks the ongoing rivalries and betrayals among a close-knit firefighting squad, as well as the red tape and internal politics that hinder their work. As in his past work, from his 2007 debut, “The Pye Dog,” to 2013’s “Journey to the West” (co-helmed with Stephen Chow), the director demonstrates his knack for creating offbeat characters propelled by unusual dramatic arcs. With the exception of a few sketchily portrayed senior officials, most of the individuals here come off as bracingly human; they may act out of insecurity, complacency or blind trust, but none are inherently corrupt.
During a mission, station officers Sam (Nicholas Tse) and Yip (Andy On), and senior station officer Chill (Shawn Yue), agree to assume joint responsibility for a risky move instigated by hotheaded Sam. But when they’re threatened with discipline by their superiors, Sam and Yip wimp out, letting their leader, Chill, take the rap. A year later, the three are reunited at Lung Ku Tan fire station, but their friendship has soured. Yip, who’s good at schmoozing with his higher-ups, has moved up the ladder, while Chill, demoralized by his unfair demotion and failed marriage, just punches the clock. Sam, smarting from guilt over his disloyalty, has developed a fire phobia.
A few days before Sam’s transfer to another post, a fire breaks out in a rundown residential block, plunging the whole operation once more into internal strife. With his daring, unorthodox rescue methods, Ocean, a new duty officer from mainland China, incurs the dislike of old guard Major Pui (Simon Yam). The suppressed animosity among Sam, Yip and Chill bubble over as each man plays by his own rules. The arduous mission provides a foretaste of greater calamities, culminating in a full-blown explosion at a nearby power plant on Christmas Eve.
The chain reaction leading up to the big blast takes rather tortuous narrative shape, its dramatic intensity at times smothered by long-winded conversations loaded with professional jargon. Nevertheless, the lengthy buildup does allow ample time for complex subplots that initially divide the characters but eventually bind them together: Yip and Sam’s ongoing feud ceases once they’re trapped in a perilous scenario that reveals Yip as more than just a go-getter, while a grudging mutual admiration develops organically between Pui and Ocean. Even Man (Patrick Tam), the control-freak manager at the power plant, is not treated as an outright villain. Still, the polished screenplay (by Kwok, Jill Leung and Yung Tsz-kwong) succumbs to melodrama in the final stretch, trafficking in more conventional forms of sacrificial heroism and male bonding.
Kwok’s stabs at realism are not limited to the vivid background details he brings to each location; drawing from accounts by retired fireman Sam Ho, he makes audiences aware of the scope and difficulty of a firefighter’s tasks. Under Roger Li’s marvelous stunt choreography, these men look as dexterous as acrobats or trapeze artists, even laying their bodies as human planks across a fiery abyss. Kwok ably executes elaborate scenes of destruction, conveying a monumental sense of space through Jason Kwan’s imposing wide-angle shots of warehouses and engine rooms. But the director demonstrates even greater finesse in exploring his protagonists’ feelings of alienation and vulnerability, expressed in moody hallucinations that make poetic use of ghostly lighting and curlicues of smoke.
Tse, Yue and On give full-throttle performances, though it’s strange to hear On speaking English amid a Chinese-speaking ensemble. Hu, who’s emerging as the mainland thesp most naturally integrated into Hong Kong ensembles in recent H.K.-China co-productions, adds emotional shadings to a stereotypically noble role; Yam, the embodiment of dapper charm, is miscast as a dowdy old trooper, straining hard to hit the right notes of jocularity. Notwithstanding the functional presence of a female engineer (Bai Bing), women are exiled to the periphery.
Eric Lam’s production design maintains a consistent look with a cool black color scheme, while the disquieting sound mix mimics the noise of heavy panting. Fronted by a bluesy score, the soundtrack hits an unexpectedly romantic chord with a song by Bizet during a fantasy sequence near the finale. Other tech credits are pro.