Lifeline (1997)

Directed by: Johnnie To
Written by: Yau Nai-Hoi
Producer: Mona Fong
Starring: Lau Ching Wan, Alex Fong, Carman Lee, Damian Lau, Ruby Wong & Raymond Wong

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Awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1998:
Best Editing (Wong Wing-Mung)
Best Sound Effects

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1998:

Best Picture
Best Director (Johnnie To)
Best New Artist (Ruby Wong)
Bets Action Design (Yuen Bun)

Lazy man's way to describe Lifeline? Hong Kong Backdraft (remember that one?). This production under the directorial guidance of Johnnie To is, to the best of my knowledge, the only, or one of the few, Hong Kong movies to depict the hard work done by fire fighters. Starring many of Milkyway's reoccurring actors, Lifeline is also notable for introducing Patrick Yau to the Hong Kong movie world. His assistant directing on this project lead to solo directing gigs such as The Longest Nite and Expect The Unexpected. Works that ranks as some of the most memorable, outside of the movies of Johnnie To, from Milkyway. This is however is a Cosmopolitan Film production

After the terrorist attacks on New York almost two years ago, the firemen received many accolades, deservedly so, than ever before. It really is a profession that the ordinary man takes for granted. We expect them to be there when we need them and before 9/11 people tended not to think from their perspective. They risk their lives, like people in other lines of work do, and Lifeline portrays this in a successful manner. Despite coming from one of Hong Kong's best directors working now, there are definite flaws in the framework. Basically no real plot exists (something I was more than ok with) and for the well-paced 100 minutes, To concentrates on the lives of a select few fire fighters. To's instinct is very much correct because we want to see the men and women behind the mask.

Director To have been criticized for being not so subtle when it comes to melodrama, in particular All About Ah Long has been singled out. While I understand the criticism, I personally thought it all came together nicely in that film. In Lifeline To aims at scoring a perfect 3 out of 3 in the main characterdevelopment but only succeeds in making one of the stories work, the Lau Ching Wan part of it. Screenwriter Yau Nai-Hoi (also co-wrote Running Out Of Time) strikes a good balance between grounded humanity and loose cannon aspects of Lau's character while the subsequent romance scores points by being a small romance. Lau's Yau-Shui connects with a doctor (Carman Lee from Wicked City), that he has run into during the course of several missions, who is at a point in her life where she's vulnerable and is dying to connect with someone again. The scenes of the two meeting up outside of their respective jobs are memorable acting moments. Both are, in a way, shy and unsure of how to be with each other when they're distanced from the worklife they live but they have clearly made a connection. Yes, this is corny to an extent but looking at the other ongoing character subplots, this one finds the better flow. Full focus on the main star, Mr To?

The other two with more focus on are Ruby Wong and Alex Fong's characters. She, pregnant and having marriage problems, he in a chief position and possibly having to resume care for his very grown up daughter. All well-meant but drama is at times completely off in scenes involving Ruby and Alex. To wants slightly more hysterical drama which almost comes as a shock when we are in calmer moods prior. It doesn't help that parts of the dialogue is as cringeworthy as it can get and the score completely fails to enhance for this part of the film. We do care because it's these actors portraying the two but To didn't nail much of anything here in actuality. In the end, he makes sure the audiences does walk away with a good, basic message, even if all intent with characters weren't fully realized.

Am not trying to, with the following paragraphs, to make it sound like Lifeline's only saving grace is the fire sequences but technically they are a home run for Johnnie To and company. Being Hong Kong, the movie feels a bit low budget but that helps conveying the feeling of real reality, not glossy, polished movie reality. There are a few minor sequences scattered throughout that shows the firemen at work, best of them in terms of tension and editing being the rain scene.

The strongest memory anyone will have from watching Johnnie To's Lifeline will be the fireclimax, lasting a good 30+ minutes. Facing obstacle upon obstacle, the cast has to fight their way through an intricate web of fire set pieces, each more intense than the other. It's hard to tell if a lot of the action was CGI enhanced but, again, being Hong Kong fairly early in the CGI creating stages, I'm willing to bet a majority of this gigantic set piece was done physically on set. If To and action director Yuen Bun didn't use storyboards for this, then this movie is the one where we can truly say Hong Kong filmmakers officially went insane. It's amazing that it doesn't get boring for one minute even though you do feel that these fire fighters really are the subject of unbelievable punishment. Terrifically shot, staged and edited, this LONG sequence is absolutely jaw dropping. I hate that term but I have to admit that it suitably describes what you will see. Certainly the biggest excitement of all this is the fact that it's pulled off by Hong Kong cinema.

Lifeline isn't a showcase for the best acting around but Lau Ching Wan, adding more to his versatility playing an authority figure who is not a cop for once, doesn't disappoint. Alex Fong (Portland Street Blues and Till Death Do Us Part), hopefully one of Hong Kong's rising acting stars, may not look like he can express very much with his face. The opposite is true however. Without doing much other than subtly change expressions and the look of his eyes, he conveys much more than other actors can when talking or being silent. This asset I think is one that Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is blessed with as well. Carman Lee surprises in a sweet supporting turn, the ever watchable Damian Lau also appears as well.

Make no mistake about it, Johnnie To's Lifeline is a big advertisement for Hong Kong fire fighters. What he makes sure to do is properly showing the negative and positive aspects of the line of work they do, interspersed with minor doses of flawed character drama. Lifeline represents a big achievement technically for Hong Kong cinema and the climax I can only describe as the Hard Boiled of firefighter movies.

The DVD:

Framed at 1.85:1, this Universe transfer is free of damage but quite soft throughout. Being a film heavily relying on smoke, a lot of digital artifacts sadly is apparent as well as grain.

The Cantonese 5.1 Dolby Digital track does lack that power you expect from a movie like this but generally does the job. Music spreads out nicely and the effects envelop the viewer to a decent degree. A Mandarin 5.1 track is also included.

No problems in the English subtitles besides a few spelling errors and the fact that dialogue sometimes is very fast, resulting in the subs appearing very briefly at times. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

Universe has loaded up with more extras than usual starting with the 15 minute Making Of (no subtitles). Shot entirely on film and letterboxed, we're treated to enough behind the scenes footage for the viewing to be rewarding.

Next up are short Star's Interviews (English subtitles) with director Johnnie To, actors Ruby Wong and Raymond Wong. Following the usual Universe dvd interview pattern, the viewer click a question and is then taken to a 30-60 answer clip. To manages to hand out decent info in the brief time, most interesting the talk about the challenges of making fire sequences (not done this extensively before in a Hong Kong movies). The actors add small notes about their research and the grueling, long shoot. Welcome extra but you wish Universe would produce longer segments like this.

Star's Files for Lau Ching Wan, Alex Fong, Carman Lee, Ruby Wong and Johnnie To are next and only briefly go over the careers the people choosen. The theatrical trailer for Lifeline appears plus trailers for Expect The Unexpected, The Longest Nite and A Hero Never Dies.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson