Vital Sign 送院途中 (2023) Review

The first thing that Vital Sign <送院途中> caught my attention is the rarely-explored story of Hong Kong paramedics as the central theme. Of course, this is not the first time I’ve seen such a story with TVB’s acclaimed 2018 series Life on the Line <跳躍生命線> starring Joe Ma and Matthew Ho being the prime example.

Nevertheless, it was a refreshing change of pace from the usual professions, notably law enforcement agencies and firefighters portrayed in Hong Kong cinema. The story follows Ma Chi-Yip (Louis Koo), a senior paramedic who loves to do things his way. He doesn’t believe in rigidly following the protocol as long as he can save lives.

This doesn’t sit well with his younger colleague, Wong Wai (Yau Hawk-Sau), who has an impressive track record for rising through the ranks and even earned the nickname “Speedy Legend”. Unlike Ma, who doesn’t mind settling as a frontline worker, Wai is aiming for a high-level desk job. The contrasting work ethics between the stubborn and rule-breaking Ma and the by-the-book Wai leads to an effective moment of dramatic tension, which can be seen during a scene in the work-site accident.

Too bad the conflict between these two paramedics is short-lived. Even the subject matter revolving around the profession of a paramedic serves more like a secondary plot, even though the movie does a good job depicting some of the minor rescue scenes. The climactic third act, however, sees writer-director Cheuk Wan-Chi — marking her fourth directorial feature since the Nick Cheung and Sammi Cheng-starred Temporary Family <失戀急讓> in 2014 — botch the opportunity to ratchet up the tension during the major rescue set-piece. She certainly lacks the visual flair and panache to handle a scene that requires to be, well, cinematic.

Instead, Cheuk Wan-Chi is more comfortable and astute in developing the characters’ personal lives and their plights. Right from the beginning, we learn that Louis Koo’s Ma Chi-Yip has been raising his little daughter, Bonnie (Ariel So) as a widowed father after the tragic death of his wife. But her grandparents have been urging him about emigration so Bonnie can live with them in Canada for the sake of her future. The scene subtly reflects Cheuk’s viewpoint on Hong Kong’s current sociopolitical climate, suggesting there’s no hope left living in the city and the best way to escape is to seek greener pastures abroad.

Ma, in the meantime, has another problem of his own. He’s been suffering from persistent back pain and relies heavily on taking painkillers with the help of his sister-in-law, Miffy (Angela Yuen), who happens to be a nurse. The introduction of Miffy, whose profanity-laden and spunky personality, brings out the best in Angela Yuen’s acting. Her lively supporting turn is among the scene-stealers in this movie.

Ariel So also surprised me with her impressive performance as Ma’s precocious daughter, Bonnie. She shares a wonderfully amusing and affecting chemistry with Louis Koo’s Ma Chi-Yip. The latter excels in his lead turn, reminding the audience that despite his erratic acting career, he still has a dramatic flair to pull off an above-average performance.

Yau Hawk-Sau deserves equal praise as the ambitious young paramedic, Wong Wai. But as much as I admire his solid supporting turn, his character’s predicament related to his estranged family is only verbally mentioned rather than utilising the more impactful “show don’t tell” storytelling approach.

Cheuk has a good ear for dialogue and also hits the spot by incorporating her drama-heavy screenplay with sardonic wits. The movie is also blessed with Meteor Cheung’s fine cinematography, particularly the nighttime Hong Kong streets during the bittersweet epilogue.

Vital Sign <送院途中> is screened as part of the Hong Kong Film Gala Presentation (HKFGP) 2023.

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