Director Derek Kwok's firefighting drama is more about smoke than fire
Derek Kwok Tsz-kin's new firefighter drama shows the director continuing to live up to the promise of his earlier films, writes Edmund Lee
Derek Kwok Tsz-kin has been basking in the limelight during the publicity blitz for his latest film As the Light Goes Out. His moment has arrived, at last, so he is understandably a little giddy with delight.
The 37-year-old director-scriptwriter's last promotional outing was marred by questions about his disappearing credits in Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, a Hong Kong-mainland co-production that became the highest-grossing Chinese film of 2013 at the mainland box office.
Although he started as co-scriptwriter and the sole director, Kwok subsequently co-directed the action comedy alongside Stephen Chow Sing-chi, and his name was left out of the opening credits.
"Actually, nothing unusual happened [on Journey to the West]," he says diplomatically. "When the budget increased, we became obliged to take on a famous, heavyweight figure to support the project. That's how Mr Chow came to join us.
"Of course, there are rumours alleging that I'm being oppressed by him," Kwok continues. "But I've always understood that it was never going to be an easy ride working with such talented people.
"I have no major complaints. It's more about whether I can learn something from the process," he adds.
Modest though he may be, the filmmaker is no novice. Kwok began working as a scriptwriter and assistant director around 2000 and made his directorial debut in 2007 with the well-received The Pye Dog.
Gallants (2010) - which he co-directed with Clement Cheng Sze-kit - garnered the best film honour at the Hong Kong Film Awards, just two years after he was named best new director on the back of his second feature, The Moss (2008).
But with As the Light Goes Out - a HK$100 million production that boasts a star-studded cast including Nicholas Tse Ting-fung, Shawn Yue Man-lok, Andy On Chi-kit, Hu Jun and Simon Yam Tat-wah - Kwok has finally joined the big leagues.
The action drama is inspired by stories that a fireman friend told him.
He was fascinated, in particular, by the helplessness that firemen often find themselves in when engulfed in thick smoke. "In the fire scenes, you can see almost nothing, and can only hear your own voice. I think very few filmmakers have made a film about that," Kwok says.
It's an approach that veteran director and cinematographer Andrew Lau Wai-keungencouraged Kwok to take, to distinguish his vision from previous attempts at the genre, such as Ron Howard's Backdraft (1991) and Johnnie To Kei-fung's Lifeline (1997).
"I told him I wanted to shoot the black smoke and give a more realistic portrait of how the firemen feel," says Kwok. "He thought it's a new angle and that I'm good to go.
"Unlike all those previous firefighting films, mine is neither about grabbing that water hose to spray on the fire, nor coolly turning around to pick up that all-purpose axe.
"I wanted the thick smoke to be the focus, and that's why I'm treating it as a kind of monster, a ghost, or a demon - like an Alien or Godzilla. The flames are, by contrast, a very, very minor character in this film."
While As the Light Goes Out may be an action flick with romanticised scenes of billowing smoke and dramatic explosions, Kwok can't be accused of under-thinking his story.
For his research, the writer-director spent six months talking to different generations of firemen to learn about their methods. What's more, symbols abound in what sounds more like a psychodrama, in Kwok's own description. "I see the situation - in which firemen face unknown danger presented by the darkness of the smoke - as a projection of the shrouded psyche of Hong Kong people today," he says.
"I wanted to apply this story to all of Hong Kong, and not just portray it as an individual incident. That's why I arranged to have a citywide blackout [in the film]." Kwok created each protagonist to reflect one common way of thinking among Hongkongers, while different areas in the burning power station at the centre of the film stood for a different area of the city. "Altogether, I want this to be a microcosm of Hong Kong," he says. "I want to deal with the predicaments and choices facing the Hong Kong people now.
"Many of them are feeling more hopeless, but I want them to remember their original objectives. I have high hopes for Hong Kong, and I have never felt disappointed," Kwok adds.
From The Pye Dog to The Moss and Gallants, Kwok's films have often demonstrated a yearning among his characters to retrieve an irreconcilable past.
Although this wistful sentiment is not as blatant in his latest film, Kwok admits that his habitual use of old, authentic locations around town - many of which have disappeared since the release of his films - stems from his love for the city.
"I want my films to be related to Hong Kong," he says. "I've always wanted to document the city in my films, and through every one of them I have a little message to convey.
" The Moss is about the hopelessness of Hong Kong. The Pye Dog, while a very personal story on the outside, tells the audience that things may not be as terrible as you think if you pay more attention to them.
"As for Gallants, it looks like a tribute to an older generation of movies, but it's really asking the question, even if the best times are already in the past, does it mean that you don't have to move forward?"
Despite his positive outlook, Kwok is not immune to a small dose of revisionist daydreaming.
"Sometimes I'd think, 'It'd be great if Gallants had been released more recently, because all these low-budget Hong Kong-centric movies are making over HK$10 million'. Then my friends would be like, 'f*** it, you were the first to use these older actors, and a have nostalgic atmosphere.' And I'd think, 'Maybe that's true,'" he says.
So does the pioneering filmmaker feel he has matured since Gallants' epoch-making victory at the Hong Kong Film Awards?
"Not really," Kwok says, chuckling. "I'm still the same idiot making the same mistakes."
As the Light Goes Out opens on Thursday