Lifeline



Reviewed by YTSL

At the risk of sounding overly chauvinistic in my championing of cinematic offerings from that part of the world, I will state that:  Although it was made with a budget that was but a fraction of "Backdraft", it really is a disservice to this Shaw Brothers film that it has been referred to as the Hong Kong version of that American work.  For beyond both these movies having firefighters as their focus and featuring some really spectacular scenes of fire which not only blazes but looks like it really is malevolently alive, they really do not have that much in common.

For this (re)viewer, the different emphases and perspectives of "Backdraft" and LIFELINE are not only representative, telling and illustrative with regards to Hollywood and "Eastern Hollywood" products in general but also provide clues as to why despite the former industry's greater marketing and distribution skills, I tend to find the latter's offerings more appealing.  More specifically:  While the Kurt Russell vehicle had a macho-jock as well as rugged individualist "take" and focused on fraternal rivalry and love, this 100 minute length ensemble piece features a female second-in-command (who is amazingly well portrayed by (then) newcomer, Ruby Wong) of a station whose presence is accepted without much comment (other than to a curious visiting parent of a new recruit) or dispute -- and goes out of the way to stress that firefighters have family (be it a spouse, parent or child) as well as careers, principles and feelings.  In doing so, IMHO, a much more well-rounded, humanizing (not just female-inclusive or feminist) portrait is created, and a better drama results.

I am aware of criticisms by some (not coincidentally Western male?) reviewers of LIFELINE's being too soap-operaish for the first two thirds of the film (N.B. These same individuals tend to then go on to heavily praise the amazing "action" sequences of the last forty minutes or so of the movie).  My own perspective -- and I do get the sense that it's as shaped by my personal background as theirs -- is that what I see as the detailed outlining and fleshing out of the story's protagonists (who come in the form of the ever capable Lau Ching Wan and sturdy Alex Fong along with the aforementioned Ruby Wong) ensures that the viewer really does care about the (main) characters' actions and fates in the later (as well as other) portion(s) of the motion picture.  For those who have seen it, it may help to think of this 1997 local film awards' best picture nominee bearing similarities in this and other regards with another Hong Kong movie which came out a year later, the equally commendable "Task Force".
Within this kind of context, the emotional doctor played by Carmen Lee is not just a superfluous adjunct player but does have a genuinely supporting role which merits viewer attention and screen time.  Not only that but I found the exchanges about how to deal with a car accident victim as well as that which takes place on a ledge between her professionally hard-nosed -- yet personally vulnerable -- character and
Lau's quixotic, dedicated firefighter to be quite emotionally affecting as well as thought provoking.
With regard to the fire(fighting) scenes (notably those that take place in the textile factory):  They truly are visually impressive.  What makes them stand out though above that of others (including that of "Backdraft") is the realization that the fire is real -- not special effects or computer created -- fire!  As it is proclaimed in the Hong Kong Film Critics Society website:  "It is said that the best special effects the HK film industry can offer is NO special effects. No film proves this more than Lifeline.  Those are REAL people trapped in REAL fire. Only 10% of the film is made with special effects. Or, look at it another way, 90% of the film is special effects, HK style"!!
Director Johnnie To is on the record (in such as Miles Wood's "Cine East") as saying that he wanted to make a realistic movie about real life heroes.  He not only succeeded in doing so -- to the extent that the film often feels like a docudrama -- but also appears to have found some other real life heroes along the way in his cast and crew.

My rating for the film:  8.0