It’s tempting to see Dante Lam’s latest foray into big budget mainland action as a continuation of his previous hits Operation Mekong and Operation Red Sea which paid tribute to the police and navy respectively, but it is also the latest in a series of films featuring China’s finest bravely battling against the odds to save the day. Like Tony Chan’s The Bravest which celebrated the selfless heroism of China’s firemen as they risked their lives to stop a potentially catastrophic fire in an oil refinery, The Rescue (紧急救援, Jǐnjí Jiùyuán) pays tribute to another undersung arm of the emergency services – China’s Coast Guard.
Our hero, Captain Gao Qian (Eddie Peng Yu-yen) of China Rescue And Salvage, is a devil-may-care hero who throws himself into danger without a second thought where lives are at stake. The motto of China Rescue And Salvage is “we risk our lives to give others hope”, but some feel that Gao Qian is too reckless with his and fear that he’s forgotten that you can’t save anyone if you get yourself killed playing at heroics. That’s something that’s temporarily brought home to him when the pilot of his helicopter is badly injured during a rescue on an oil rig engulfed by flames, leaving the inexperienced co-pilot to fill-in on his behalf. Gao Qian works his magic in the nick of time, but both of the pilots quit the team immediately afterwards, the pilot struck by the proximity of death and the co-pilot by his sense of inadequacy in feeling as if he failed to live up to the job.
Luckily the team soon get a new pilot – a lady, Yuling (Xin Zhilei), who clashes with Gao Qian in true disaster movie fashion in her desire for rational action and the kind of heroics that are strictly by the book. Against the odds, however, they make a good team, eventually bonding in mutual admiration for their complementary skills. Meanwhile, Gao Qian is also dealing with some home drama in that he’s just brought his young son Congcong (Zhang Jingyi), who had been staying with his grandmother, to live with him. Congcong seems to be suffering with some kind of illness, but is otherwise cheerful enough and hoping that his dad will get him a new mum, like, for example, the beautiful Yuling.
The death of his wife, his son’s illness, and the loss of colleagues he was forced to leave behind, haunt Gao Qian like a cosmic joke, as if he’s being “punished” for snatching so many other lives from the jaws of death. No matter how hard he tries, there are lives which cannot be saved – no helicopter can rescue you from terminal illness or debilitating disease. Nevertheless, he continues to do his best no matter the personal costs. “Everyone has their own battleground, mine is rescue” he tells a superior with determination after his priorities are questioned. In training, the coach reminds the rescuers that their enemy is nature. They push their bodies as far as they can go, willingly risking all to let others know that someone is always looking out for them and will come in their time of need. Faced with certain death, Gao Qian enters an eerily beautiful existential space born of liminality in which he is perhaps able to feel everything that is to be alive while his son, fighting his own battle, does something much the same.
The strangely poetic quality of life in extremis is directly contrasted with the hokey comedy of Gao Qian’s home life and the brotherly comradeship of the base which are both much more of the typical “New Year Movie” mould. Lam fares much better than Chan in heading off the obvious melodrama, though he too resorts to the obvious foreshadowing of a young man daring to get wedding photos taken while planning to risk his life for the greater good, while the quirky production design and wholesome warmth of Gao Qian’s home life as he attempts to make the world safe for his son offer a much needed escape from the anxiety of his disaster-fuelled existence. Unlike that of Red Sea, the world of The Rescue is a more open and hopeful one in which Gao Qian does his best to save everyone who needs saving no matter their nationality, feted far and wide as a hero even if he awkwardly embodies a magnanimous China as a world protector as he does so. Nevertheless, Lam once again manages to elevate his material beyond its propagandist aims, edging towards a more ambivalent contemplation of selfless nobility and the costs of courageous endurance.
In UK cinemas from 25th January courtesy of CMC Pictures.
Original trailer (English subtitles)