NYAFF 2023: Vital Sign

Directed by: Cheuk Wan-Chi
Distributed by: TBD

Written by Patrick Hao


At first glance, the Hong Kong thriller, “Vital Sign,” seems like a conventional thriller following a Hong Kong paramedic, Ma Chi-yip (Louis Koo), who does not like the bureaucracy that hinders him from his actual work of saving lives. Then you realize at second and third glance that “Vital Sign” is exactly the conventional thriller that you thought it was. The film never gets as thrilling as its frenetic pacing nor does it go above mere platitudes as the state of Hong Kong of today.

Koo does offer his familiar steady hand in the lead role. At the age of 52, the pretty-boy actor is starting to develop interesting wrinkles that lend weight to the gruffer characters he is now playing. Chi-yip is a haunted, guilt-stricken widow, who is disillusioned with being a paramedic despite his passion for saving lives, no matter the cause. It’s an archetype that is familiar to all those browsing the rental sections of your local Redbox starring Mel Gibson or, if it is even more low-budget, Devon Sawa. Add to that as Chi-yip is contemplating retirement, he is assigned the young Wong Wai (Yau Hawk-sau), a rule following sycophant.

The film gets a little more interesting as it becomes clear director/writer Cheuk Wan-Chi is as disillusioned with Hong Kong as Chi-yip is with being an EMT. While he would love to just be a shopkeeper hanging out with his daughter, the wage gap has made Hong Kong inhospitable for him and his daughter. Unfortunately, due to his age and ailments, only his daughter would be able to emigrate to Canada, where there is better healthcare and other social safety nets.

While the nuances of Hong Kong social politics escapes me, the film never really connects the profession of ambulance workers with the social messaging that it aspires to. It’s hard not to think about Martin Scorsese’s “Bringing Out the Dead,” which was able to precisely draw parallels to internal faith and healing with the profession through the cinematic language. “Vital Sign” never quite makes a compelling case for using EMTs as a representative metaphor for the decaying Hong Kong.

In the end, “Vital Sign” feels like an uninvolving episode of TV. Even a standard episode of 9-11 with Angela Bassett will make some contemporary remarks to the state of the world. Even the open-endedness of the climax, an obvious piece of messaging in its own right, leaves one questioning if the director really had anything to say in the first place.

“Vital Sign” Trailer

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

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