Shi wan huo ji / Sup man for gup
Hong Kong, 1997
Lau Ching-wan, Carman Lee Yeuk-ting, Alex Fong Chung-shun,
Ruby Wong Cheuk-ling, Damian Lau Chung-yun, Wong Ho-yin,
|Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer
Lifeline is a film with multiple-personality disorder : the first two-thirds feel like TV-soap opera, but the last half hour is pure poetry. Stick with it: it's worth sitting through an hour of lives and loves of Hong Kong firefighters (and guess what -- they're people, just like us!)to get to the final 30 minutes of glorious spectacle.
A laborious set up introduces us to Lau Ching-wan's "Yau Sui",a stubborn-minded Hong Kong fireman, and something of a loner. His colleagues include stern boss/neglectful father Cheung (Alex Fong), and team leader, "Madam" (Ruby Wong), stuck with a lout for a husband. For romantic interest, enter "Annie Chan" (Carman Lee Yeuk-ting), a young doctor, cruelly neglected by her boyfriend. Each little domestic sub plot goes throughthe motions of being worked out: only Lau and Lee give us something to watch, in a wonderful balcony scene. Lee pulls off her richest dramatic performance to date, as, drunk and suicidal, she works out whether or not to end her life. And Lau gives another of his effective gentle-charmer performances (see Beyond Hypothermia, Once in a Lifetime, etc.). He doesn't so much seduce the leading lady as surround her with a cozy, awkward kind of warmth that always seems to win her over, respectfully, in the end.
After a seemingly endless hour of this, the climax: an extended action-escape sequence, in which Lau Ching-wan's team (known among their colleagues as the "ill-fated jinxes") becomes trapped in a giant fire in an abandoned factory. They have to fight their way out, rescuing trapped civilians and blasting their way out of the ground (!) in the process. The real business of Lifeline is firefighters-in-fire photography, and Johnny To and his team (director of photography Cheng Siu-Keung, editor Wong Wing-ming, action director Yuen Bun) let their artistry rip. I have never been seensuch intoxicatingly beautiful images of pure energy like this in film. Huge sheets of flame, like they were living things, erupt over the team. Fire is filmed, in scenes that have the beauty of abstract, moving light-painting, like a vital force. It has a visceral, animated presence that is as alluring, as charismatic and as terrifying as even the most vividly characterized film villain (I'm thinking of Francis Ng in his various Young and Dangerous roles).
Within this nightmare vision, To injects close, murky, claustrophobic shots of the firefighters in action. Their fear of being engulfed in flames is compounded by the team's repeated loss of escape routes: one by one, they reach exits, only to find them blocked, impassable. Finally, they are driven underground, in a nightmarish tunnel sequence that might just as well belong to a prison-escape film. The smoke, the tightness of the space, the sense of being trapped, in terror, in an isolated and imminently explosive space are so immediately palpable that I wasn't even aware of having taken a breath until the film reached its final (overly corny) scenes of triumph.
And I wasn't aware, until late in the film, of how this pure nightmare of claustrophobia, whose emotional grip Johnny To has so brilliantly evoked, resonates with what it must be like today, in early 1997, on the ground,in Hong Kong, for those who have reason to fear the coming transition toChinese rule.
This is how filmmaking works on many interlinked levels. At its best,in much of the great work of the Hong Kong film industry since 1984, a film can be art and entertainment, and a form of social commentary. We need not look to a film's narrative for some neat fit, some precise parallel of a particular contemporary situation. Lifeline works like a refracting lens (rather than, say, a mirror), that twists, intensifies, purifies the emotional underpinnings of what life "feels like" at this unique moment in Hong Kong's history. An audience can then connect intuitively, directly, rather than at some analytical remove (Gordon Chan's current hit Armageddon takes this analytical route, and it suffers in comparison: the audience has to contend with a kind of elaborately constructed, too clever-by-a-half allegory for 1997, and ends up experiencing a weaker film).
The only thing marring Lifeline's final sequence is To's cop-out of an ending. A film which upholds the value of courageous self-sacrifice, if necessary, should itself have the courage to exact some sort of price from its triumphant heroes. But Lifeline backs down, and succumbs to the temptation of the uniformly upbeat finale (just as Armageddon backs away from the apocalypse at its end).
If these films are deeply involved with Hong Kong's future, then it is no surprise that they succumb to the temptation to take the easy way out. And this seems to be part of a more general trend: even an artist as uncompromising as the singer Faye Wong has (temporarily) dropped her edgy, disconcerting style in favour of the sweet, soothing nostrums of her latest CD, Toy (but see a review that finds the album subversive). Maybe all this is confident prediction, maybe just wishful thinking.
But the sheer glorious spectacle at the core of Lifeline can't be wiped out by either its feeble opening or its compromised ending. This film should end up as one of the signal achievements of this last year of independent Hong Kong film.
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all content © 1996-2002 Shelly Kraicer