A mother and a daughter take very different paths in trying to come to terms with grief in Anastasia Tsang’s poignant drama, A Light Never Goes Out (燈火闌珊). A tale of loss in more ways than one, the film is also a deeply felt lament for the old Hong Kong which finds itself slowly erased as symbolised by the movement to remove the “dangerous” neon signage which was once such a part of the city’s identity.
Heung’s (Sylvia Chang Ai-Chia) late husband Bill (Simon Yam Tat-Wah) had been a master craftsman of just such signs though as far as Heung knew had retired a decade previously as the industry continued to decline. Where once the city was full of neon, modern businesses prefer cheaper LED signage. Now that Bill is gone, Heung struggles to find direction in her life. She continues cooking for three even though they’re only two and sadly reflects on how dark and sad the streets now feel as she witnesses the signs that Bill spent so much of his life crafting unceremoniously dismantled. While all she wants to do is hang on to the past, her daughter Prism (Cecilia Choi Si-Wan) takes the opposite path insensitively getting rid of her father’s things without her mother’s knowledge while secretly planning to move to Australia with her fiancé Roy.
In some ways the two women represent a set of opposing views with the mother standing in for those who decide to stay and fight for the soul of Hong Kong, and the daughter those who decide their future lies abroad in her case in Australia where she believes there is “more creative freedom”. When Heung tells some construction workers that “your new laws are illegal”, it sounds as if she’s talking about more than just building ordinances while exasperated by the idea that something which seemed very ordinary just a short time ago is deemed against the law because of a sudden and arbitrary introduction of additional legislation.
It might be assumed that the neon lights fade because young people do not care for them, but Heung’s greatest allies are the young apprentice, Leo (Henick Chou), she belatedly discovers Bill had taken on before he died and a young woman who fiercely protects the neon sign that hangs above her bar. It’s she who also points out that Bill supported her during the SARS crisis when her family’s business was suffering, bearing out his humanity in helping those in need while suggesting that it is spirit of the neon lights that has kept Hong Kong going during its darkest days. Bill had been a bit of a dreamer, fond of encouraging those around him to wish upon a star while insisting that nothing’s predetermined and if you wan’t something you can make it happen all of which sounds like a subtly subversive advocation for the fight for Hong Kong.
As he later says, his signs may have been torn down but they can be built again while Heung and her daughter eventually find a way to reconcile in their grief and she gains a surrogate son in the earnest Leo who encountered rejection all his life until discovering a calling in the art of neon signage. Leo’s commitment suggests that something of the neon lights can be preserved and brought into a new era while there is a genuine poignancy in the significance of the sign reading “myriad lights” which eventually guides each of the heroes towards their resolution in attempting to fulfil Bill’s dying wish of recreating a sign which had long since disappeared but held a memory for another couple that another one long departed had held for he and Heung.
Tsang often cuts back to stock footage of a neon-lit Hong Kong in the 60s and 70s before contrasting it with the comparatively empty streets of today which appear almost soulless in their slick modernity. It is in a sense nostalgia, a yearning for another Hong Kong which is fast disappearing or perhaps being deliberately erased as symbolised in the final, post-credits shot of the famous floating restaurant with its vibrant exterior and giant green “Jumbo” sign which capsized in June 2022 after being towed out of Hong Kong for storage in Cambodia. A poignant tale of grief and healing, Tsang’s moving drama nevertheless suggests a flame still burns in the flickering lights of the old Hong Kong which continue to illuminate the night sky in defiance of those who might seek to extinguish them.
A Light Never Goes Out opens in UK cinemas on 12th May courtesy of CineAsia.
UK trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)