As the Light Goes Out
Well Go USA // Unrated // $29.98 // November 18, 2014
Review by Tyler Foster | posted November 21, 2014
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If you sit and think about it, it's surprising how few movies there are about firefighters or firefighting. Aside from a couple of high-profile films (Backdraft, Ladder 49), as well as some more minor efforts (Fire With Fire) Just tackling that topic feels like a film in a can: the sight of a flaming building provides a pretty straightforward spectacle and a number of obstacles, and firefighters are pretty much universally viewed as heroes, which sets up a strong protagonist, defined either by strong moral fiber or a surprising and uncharacteristic lack of any. Supporting characters are taken care of in the form of the rest of the department, and anything outside of the big crisis sequences can take place in the firehouse, saving on sets. It's true that for decades, the effects work and safety hazards presented probably prevented these kinds of movies, but in the age of digital effects, it seems like it'd be pretty easy to crank out any number of suspense pictures about the profession.

As the Light Goes Out hopes to rectify this, although instead of a suspense film, it's more of a melodrama, with old friendships and strained loyalties tying together the expected thrills as the department attempts to rescue people trapped inside a burning power plant. Sam (Nicholas Tse), Yip (Andy On), and Chill (Shawn Yue) were a team before they were torn apart when a choice made in the heat of the moment (hur hur) to violate a fire brigade law resulted in a few deaths. At the time, Sam and Chill agree to take the fall for Yip, but Sam backs out when confronted by the board, and Chill bears the full administrative punishment. Years later, unaddressed tension between the three men rises up on Sam's last day at the station, when a building too close to a natural gas pipeline catches fire, later killing power to the entirety of Hong Kong. Along with veteran Tao (Simon Yam), and 45-year-old newcomer Ocean (Hu Jun), the group must try and put aside their differences while people's lives are on the line.

At least from where I'm standing, the bonds of brotherhood, both literal and figurative, are a fairly central part of Chinese cinema, and to that end it's a shame that As the Light Goes Out doesn't bring anything new to the table. Yip now manages the station where Sam works, and there's an obvious arrogance to the way he treats Sam. Chill, meanwhile, struggles to deal with his crumbling marriage, and his young son's half-joking appraisal of him as a bit of a loser. Up until his last day, Sam spends his time away from actual firefighting, but is encouraged to suit up for the building fire in question. When a fellow firefighter almost dies, Yip takes it out on Sam, dismissing his appraisal of the site as a potential hazard and prompting him to drop a number of precautionary measures. When Sam can't quite let that sit with him, old tempers flare up again, and everyone's dirty laundry is aired. It's all very run-of-the-mill stuff, and serves only to distract from the visceral thrill of firefighting.

Then again, the firefighting scenes in the film aren't exactly great either. Director Derek Kwok opens the film with some promising text about how smoke is the real killer, rather than flames, but he puts this wisdom into action by making smoke appear literally like a monster, with the black cloud at one point swallowing a man up inside an elevator, as if straight out of a horror movie. When the gang is showing fighting a fire, he has no particular insight on how such work is done, depicting the team spraying their hoses off screen until such time as the plot needs to move forward again. Instead, he focuses more on traditional disaster movie set-ups, splitting time between a number of people trapped in a burning power station. Collapsing ceilings, explosions, and blocked exits are the order of the day. As the Lights Go Out doesn't need to be a documentary about firefighting, but it feels as if Kwok respects the principle of what firefighters do without having any idea how to make it cinematic.

That's not to say none of the film works. Although the dramatic beats often feel strained, glimpses of the group's friendship are kind of charming -- more of this would've done more to solidify their shared backstory than several of the more intense beats scattered throughout the film. A scene where a group of survivors make their way around a pile of debris covering a walkway is packed with white-knuckle intensity. Many of the pyrotechnic effects are impressive, even though the CG is occasionally dodgy. There's also a very funny cameo that even American audiences will understand, which the US press release was all too happy to reveal but I will keep under wraps. As the Light Goes Out is frequently too wrapped up in its own dramatic weight to be as exhilarating as it ought to be, but it's got an interesting flavor and some moments that allow the viewer to see the potential of the concept for bigger and better things.

The Blu-ray
As the Lights Go Out gets some fairly stylish cover art, featuring a firefighter, the image of his body nearly turned into a silhouette by the smoke and bright light of a fire surrounding him, with the title in a bold but softened font to the side. The single-disc release comes inside an eco-friendly Vortex Blu-ray case, and there is an insert advertising other Well Go USA releases.

The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.39:1 1080p AVC, this presentation of the film is a disappointment. Well Go has traditionally had problems with banding, but the last few releases I've seen from them have been free of it. Right from the beginning, however, Lights is plagued by it, with really apparent discolored rings surrounding the opening credits. Thankfully, the digital CGI intro is not indicative of how affected the film is by this issue, as it immediately becomes less apparent as a live-action shot fades in, but the circular artifacting pattern can still easily be seen around the edges during the dark, shadow-intense fire sequences. It's even more of a shame because during well-lit sequences, the transfer is very strong, boasting incredibly fine detail, a pleasing grain structure (even if it is probably a digital fake), and intentionally muted but visually pleasing colors.

The fire roars with a pleasing intensity on the disc's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, which captures the terrifying experience of being inside a creaking, straining building slowly collapsing as it burns to the ground. Groaning pipes, straining support beams, the whoosh of smoke and sudden flames, and a number of large-scale explosions are replicated with an impressive authenticity, and with satisfying immersiveness. When the characters aren't fighting fire, there's not much going on other than dialogue, but it's a strong soundtrack. There's also a fun sequence near the beginning of the film with some "blockbuster" sound effects. A standard 2.0 track is also included, as well as English subtitles.

The Extras
None, other than a trailer.

If you're in the mood for something different, maybe As the Light Goes Out will make for a satisfying rental. It's got a number of glaring flaws, but at its best, the setting and type of thrills on hand are a bit of fresh air (pun intended).

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