Out Of Inferno (Táo Chūshēng Tiān)
China/Hong Kong (2013) Dir. Oxide & Danny Pang
You wait for a 3D disaster movie featuring Hong Kong firefighters to arrive then two show up at once. Just a few months has after the release of this film from the renowned Pang Brothers came Derek Kwok’s As The Light Goes Out. As much as both films are similar they are also quite different but considering the amount of triad, martial arts and fluffy rom coms Hong Kong produces per annum which share the same DNA we shouldn’t be to cynical about what is an apparent unfortunate scheduling clash.
Taking the more traditional big budget disaster route for its central story, Out Of Inferno revolves around two fire fighting brothers Tai Kwan (Ching Wan Lau) and Keung (Louis Koo), Tai Kwan being the elder brother and senior officer in the job. Four years later with the brothers now estranged, Keung has quit the force and started his own computerised fire protection operation.
On the same day – which just happens to be the hottest in fifty years – Keung’s operation opens its office in a multi-storey business complex Tai-Kwan’s wife, Si-lok (Angelica Lee), is seeing her gynaecologist Lee Kin-Lok (Chen Sicheng) in the same building. Deep below in the basement the air conditioner packs up and a worker there drops his lit cigarette, the sparks of which (literally) leap around the empty room set everything flammable ablaze. Soon the fire spreads throughout the building and Tai Kwan and his team are on their way.
Disaster movies are one of those genres where a little leeway is required, for the most plausible avenues for their set-ups have been explored and done to death. Therefore it feels churlish to scoff at the paucity of original ideas in the script department and surprisingly, the Pangs are unusually guilty of this with this film, having made their name with groundbreaking fare like Bangkok Dangerous and The Eye.
The check list of clichés includes the feuding family members, the pregnant wife, the myopic husband too devoted to his job, the little child separated from her parents and multi-floor hazards for the rescue team to overcome. At least the fire starting by a simple cigarette addresses the balance by not having an unnecessarily complex and far fetched Final Destination-esque chain of events to incur ridicule instead of dread. The Pangs later make-up for the flimsy plotting with some rather inventive and heart stopping action scenes of genuine danger and excitement.
It is only through a late and conveniently timed flashback that we learn the true cause of the rift between the brothers which is a graver issue than we are first led to believe. While Keung, Si-lok and the others are trying to avoid being roasted Tai-Kwan is handing in his resignation on the day his promotion is accepted because of the forthcoming baby Si-lok thinks he doesn’t give a stuff about.
Meanwhile the little girl Lam Lam (Crystal Lee) is a spoilt brat whose parents (Jin Qiaoqiao and Cheung Siu-fai) are buying a store just for her! Assuming the role of gutless wonder is not one but two characters – the noble Dr. Lee who refuses to save Lam Lam when she is trapped alone and Ho (Marc Ma), a jewellery store worker who kills his boss and steals some diamonds because he feels underpaid.
With the roles clearly defined there seems to be little need for any real development for the characters but we don’t really expect there to be anyway. Since the rules states that there must be happy(ish) ending for a disaster flick we get a change of heart for the less appealing cast members which we are to accept as a cheesy form of redemption since that is what life threatening situations do to a person. Lessons are learned and everyone lives happily ever after albeit with slighter blacker lungs than before.
One area the Pangs outdid their unofficial competition is by taking the very dangerous but effective step of using real fire where applicable to garner a more genuine reaction of terror from their cast. This authenticity is a huge positive over the CGI effects of As The Light Goes Out and other films where this technique is employed and while the cast were protected the danger feels all the more palpable and convincing.
As expected the rescue mission involves plenty of daring escapes with (CGI) crumbling floors, collapsing ceilings and even an entire floor packed with flammable liquids which remain undetected until the last minute. The highlight however sees the main players find their only means of escape is through a flooded lift shaft and dropping the lift will cause the water to put out the basement fire. But with everything collapsing around them the lift may just squash them first – if they haven’t already fried to death.
Despite a high wire scene prior to this trying hard to create nail biting tension it is this less flashy scenario which is vastly superior, with some nifty editing and well timed execution of the pitfalls to make the impending danger as unbearable for the audience as possible. And if there was CGI used it was only to accommodate the 3D which unlike other films, wasn’t so obvious in the 2D version I viewed meaning it was a waste of time anyway (as usual).
The Pangs were lucky to have some top quality names in their cast, including Ching Wan Lau who is suitably grizzled and pig headed throughout, while Louis Koo does not convince at all as an action hero or as an emotionally conflicted lead. Thankfully Angelica Lee is there to pick up the slack, which must have pleased hubby Oxide Pang, while everyone else delvers where necessary.
For a pair of filmmakers renowned for their adventurous visions, Out Of Inferno is a very pedestrian and by the numbers popcorn flick for The Pangs, which suitably entertains but doesn’t overwhelm as one might expect it to.