Lifeline (1997) Movie Review

I’m a sucker for cop movies, but I’ve never been all that enthusiastic about firefighter movies. I mean, besides watching firefighters battle fires, what’s the point? And really, how many different ways to show a fire ravaging a building and getting hit with water can you possible take before you start looking for a good ol fashion cops and robbers shootout? 1997’s “Lifeline” is a firefighter movie, although there’s only one fire sequence in the whole movie and that takes up the film’s entire second half. More than that, the film is a good ol fashion drama.

Ching Wan Lau stars as Yau Sui, the “boss” of a firehouse that is considered jinx because their bosses keep getting hurt. After their current boss is paralyzed during a rescue, Cheung (Alex Fong), a hardnosed, by-the-book chief takes over. Of the group of close-knit firefighters, Yau Sui is the “save them all at all costs” type; the station’s only female firefighter (Ruby Wong) has a husband that isn’t sure about her profession; and there’s an eager to please rookie who may not be ready for the job. Worst, people keep telling Cheung that his firehouse is jinxed.

Leading up to the film’s central set piece, the screenplay by Nai-Hoi Yau (“Wu Yen”) concentrates on the personal lives of its individual characters. We learn that the source of Cheung’s crankiness is the disintegration of his family; worst, his ex-wife is now trying to return his daughter to him while she pursues another marriage. Yau Sui is chasing pretty doctor Annie Chan (Carmen Lee), who is trying to decide between him and her cheating doctor boyfriend. And Ruby Wong (whose character I don’t recall being called anything other than “Madam”) is unsure if she still wants to live with a husband that is trying to trick her into having a baby so she’ll be forced to quit her job.

By the time the movie shifts to its one and only set piece, we know enough about the characters to actually care rather they survive or not. This is a necessary thing because the movie spends its entire second half on a massive fire at a clothing warehouse, with our firefighters trapped inside and being pursued by ferocious flames. It’s all very well done and points should be given to director Johnnie To (“The Mission”) and his crew, not to mention his actors, for what must have been some pretty harrowing scenes. How did these guys manage to survive? I counted at least a half dozen times when giant walls of fire completely engulf one character or another.

As usual, Ching Wan Lau (“Black Mask”) proves that he has everything it takes to be an effective leading man and then some. It’s to Lau’s credit that his scenes with Carman Lee (“Legend of the Wolf”) makes Lee look wholly unprepared for this thing called “acting”. Is Carman Lee even a real human being, or did the filmmakers use a mannequin? I’m still not sure. Which leads me to think that the film would have benefited greatly had Ruby Wong (who would go on to star with Lau in the “Running out of Time” series) been used as Lau’s love interest instead. There is real promise there, but there isn’t any between Lau and Lee.

Despite his unflattering (and dare I say it, discoesque?) choice of off-duty wardrobe, Alex Fong (“The Storm Riders”) is appropriately somber as the new chief of the jinxed firehouse. His transformation from a strict boss who was rumored to have pushed a firefighter so far that he died to being just “one of the boys” is believable. With the exception of the pretty but oh-so-unemotional Carman Lee, the entire cast of “Lifeline” is exceptional.

Which leads me to this observation: I don’t think Hong Kong filmmakers spend enough time casting background actors. I’ve always had this nagging feeling that characters that appear onscreen in Hong Kong movies for a line or two got there by accident, and not because someone cast them based on talent. How else to explain their awfulness in the brief couple of seconds that they do appear onscreen?

“Lifeline” has some impressive fire effects, and the cast and crew deserves credit for pulling off the fire stunts, especially considering that the Hong Kong film industry has never been known for safety. The nearly hour-long sequence at the blazing warehouse is a massive undertaking, and To uses the darkness of the warehouse to great affect. We feel as if we’re in there with these people, braving through the lack of oxygen, the near blinding darkness of the situation, and trying desperately to claw our way to sunlight.

Maybe I should watch firefighter movies more often…

Johnnie To (director) / Nai-Hoi Yau (screenplay)
CAST: Alex Fong …. Cheung
Ching Wan Lau …. Yau Sui
Damian Lau …. Cheung Fu-Shing
Carman Lee …. Annie Chan

Buy Lifeline on DVD