Trust veteran Hong Kong director Andrew Lau to turn what has been termed a 'miracle emergency landing' in real life into a nail-biting disaster movie that pays tribute to its ordinary heroes - especially as the title mentions, the pilot who steeled his nerves and trusted his instincts to save the lives of 119 passengers and eight other crew members. That individual is Captain Liu Chuanjian, a former Air Force pilot turned Sichuan Airlines staff, whose flight from Chongqing to Lhasa on the morning on 14 May 2008 was met with a shattered windscreen about 150km from Chengdu and had to pilot the plane through the mountainous Tibetan region to reach the nearest airport.
As played by Zhang Hanyu, the onscreen Liu is a stoic, almost stern, no-nonsense figure who demands the highest standards from his fellow crew, in particular his young co-pilot Liang Peng (Oho Ou). Although Liu gives the movie its title, apart from the scenes bookending the film showing him leaving and returning to his wife and young daughter, the film is only about him insofar as it relates to the events of Sichuan Airlines Flight 8633 (3U8633) that fateful day, so don't expect this to be a character study like Clint Eastwood's 'Sully'; indeed, what it does want us to learn about Liu, and what it portrays magnificently, is his composure, adroitness and perseverance under tremendous conditions, given the sudden loss of pressure and temperature in the cockpit upon the loss of the plane's windshield.
Together with his writer Yu Yonggan (who also wrote this summer's 'The Bravest'), Lau zooms in on three key periods during the harrowing journey: when the windshield first blew out and the plane dropped 8000ft from its cruising altitude; when Liu had to fly through a thunderstorm over the Tibetan mountains in order to get to Chengdu's Shuangliu Airport; and when Liu had to land the overweight plane on the runway as well as bring it to a halt without either thrust reversers working. Even though you're fully aware that the crew will pull through, each of these periods is an edge-of-your-seat sequence in itself, with Lau skilfully toggling between the cockpit and the cabin to illustrate the reactions of the pilots versus the passengers and stewardesses.
Whereas Liu anchors the cockpit, it is inflight service manager Bi Nan (Quan Yuan) who takes the lead in the cabin - not only is she an exemplar in guiding her younger colleagues to serve with commitment and professionalism, such as in dealing with self-entitled business-class passengers, she is Liu's complement in managing the anxiety among the passengers so as to avoid pandemonium from breaking out in the cabin (therefore allowing Liu to focus on bringing the plane under control). Like Liu, the film mostly shows her in relation to the crisis, so even though there is some hint that she is going through a rough patch in her marriage, we are never really told what exactly it is, and therefore fully grasp how her perspective on that changes after the incident.
Interestingly, while convention would have dictated that the film pick a couple of passengers to show how the brush with death changes their attitude towards life and/or their loved ones, Lau decides to make his movie an engaging procedural about airport and airline operations, as well as air traffic management. With some deft editing by Azrael Chung, Lau assembles a couple of intriguing montages that show how the crew of 3U8633 get ready for takeoff, how control is handed over from the airport control tower to the air traffic control centre at various altitudes, the interfacing between civilian and military in air traffic management (ATM), and the coordination among various parts of airport operations in preparation for the flight's emergency landing. The involvement of the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) ensures the authenticity of these scenes, with the CAAC head honcho Feng Zhenglin credited as chief consultant no less, but it is to Lau's credit that the nuts and bolts of airport and ATM operations in response to the disaster is as fascinating to watch as what went on inside the plane itself.
That said, even as there is less emphasis than expected on the passengers, Lau doesn't lose the poignancy within these harrowing moments. From a husband confessing to his wife that he is going to be a chef at a work site than at a high-class hotel in Lhasa, to the wife of the plane's third pilot waiting feverishly on the ground, and to Liu's own wife trying hard not to lose her cool in front of their young daughter, Lau captures the gamut of emotions from those in the air to those on the ground as the events unfold, and wisely chooses not to dwell on them excessively in order to avoid turning his movie into melodrama.
Whether as a proactive or necessary addition to appease the infamous Chinese censors, 'The Captain' ends on a slightly awkward note as Liu and the rest of the crew of 3U8633 sing a patriotic song celebrating the motherland. That aside, this portrait of the heroic actions of one ordinary person, as well as the professionalism of those involved in one way or another, is gripping, rousing and even informative, showing a director at the very top of his game. We dare say it is one of our favourite Mainland Chinese films this year, and we dare guarantee you'll be similarly enraptured by this effortless crowdpleaser. As paradoxical as it sounds, this is one flight you won't want to miss.