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Chinese language cinema

Film review: Sky on Fire – Ringo Lam misfires with unconvincing thriller

A failed attempt at presenting moral dilemmas, as baffling characters hunt down a break-through cancer drug, highlights dire need for a script doctor

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 November, 2016, 10:42am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 November, 2016, 10:42am

2/5 stars

There’s an alarming discrepancy between the Ringo Lam Ling-tung movies we love and the mediocre efforts that he’s been producing since the Hong Kong film legend returned to directing. While last year’s Wild City peddled a hackneyed story about the consequences of greed and corruption, it was at least a solid crime drama blessed with thrilling action scenes. The same couldn’t be said of Sky on Fire, his ambitious yet undeniably failed attempt to address the moral dilemmas amid life-and-death situations.

Directed and scripted by Lam from his original story, this overly sombre movie is set around the invention of a revolutionary cure for cancer. (Although the film’s Chinese title and promotional poster both appear to tease a Towering Inferno scenario, it couldn’t be further from the truth.) While the drug provides a MacGuffin for everyone to chase around, it also necessitates the use of a futuristic setting that feels jarringly at odds with the touch of gritty realism prevalent in Lam’s action thrillers.

Why Hong Kong filmmaker Ringo Lam is an angry man

Things are complicated in the top medical institute researching said drug: since a laboratory fire killed its lead scientist five years ago, control of the research has been seized by his wicked protégé, Dr. Tang (Fan Guang-yao). Once a drug sample is hijacked by the dead scientist’s son (Zhang Ruoyun), however, a security chief (Daniel Wu Yin-cho), Tang’s estranged wife (Zhang Jingchu), and even a random cancer patient (Amber Kuo Tsai-chieh) and her brother (Joseph Chang Hsiao-chuan) all join the chase.

By filling the ensemble with characters who are either in grief or suffering from cancer (or both), Lam is apparently trying to craft a tragedy of epic proportions. It’s a pity that his characters are rendered with such broad, and often thoroughly baffling, strokes. When a heroic character makes it his mission to save every life, and then lets the explosive climax happen the way it does here, you realise that Lam needs to find a script doctor more than any elixir. On a few occasions, Sky on Fire simply makes no sense.

Sky on Fire opens on November 24

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