Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on September 4, 2012
Car chase movies are necessarily clamorous things, as they orchestrate squealing rubber, huffing pistons and the screams of crumpling steel. Which is why Motorway (2012), the new film from Hong Kong director Soi Cheang now out on HK Blu-Ray, is so unusual. It’s a particularly quiet automobile action movie, focused on the finesse of driving. The defining technique of the film is a 90 degree hairpin turn executed at 8,000 RPMs but only 2 Kilometers/hr. It requires great power exerted with careful, slow consideration, which holds true for the film as a whole. Pared down to a sleek 89 minutes during a prolonged two-year post-production process, back-stories and subplots were removed in favor of a film with narrative lines as clean as the ’89 Nissan 240 SX S13 that the traffic cops are unable to stop.
Motorway is the second film that Soi Cheang has made for Johnnie To’s Milkyway Studios, after the elaborately entertaining assassin drama Accident (2009). Where that is a clever expansion of the hitman movie, with its complicated Rube Goldberg made-to-look-like-accidents killings, Motorway is a reduction. Each of its characters is reduced to genre archetypes, with the audience using its knowledge of previous car chase films to fill in their background. The main driver is Chan Cheung (Shawn Yue), a speed freak gearhead who also works for the traffic cops in Kowloon. His partner is Lo Fung (the ever stone-faced Anthony Wong), who is near-retirement but is still haunted by the getaway driver Jiang (Guo Xiaodong) who escaped him decades previously. So of course that wheelman returns to Kowloon in order to spring his imprisoned pal Huang (Li Haitao), in order to set up the heist of a large diamond.
They are defined by their jobs and the roles as established by previous films. The enigmatic Jiang is descended straight from Ryan O’Neal in The Driver, whose every press of the accelerator seems to assuage some deep existential dread, while Chan, with his souped up vehicle and late night drag races, is a fugitive from the hyperactive Fast and Furious series – a hot-headed punk over his head. But while the characters are familiar, the chase scenes are not. They are uncannily intimate affairs, always at night under flickering neon lights, and they are paced and fought like duels. Cheang makes much out of dramatic pauses and rests. Jiang is constantly finding holes in the city to rest in, from the back of a truck to the obscured spot in a parking garage. There is a sense of vehicles as an extension of their bodies, no more so when Lo Fung rolls down his window in an effort to hear his adversary more than see him, as the darkening night corrodes his vision. The repeated close-ups of the engine block throbs with the energy of a heartbeat.
It is a thrillingly organic film, in which the lines of a map which Jiang is tracing morphs into the lines of the road, of the car, and of the street. And all of this rather quietly rendered structure does not diminish the impact of the chases. Using a camera attached low to the ground, Cheang and his cameraman capture the stunt-drivers locking horns through the streets of Hong Kong. I only detected CG in one shot, in which a car nearly tips over a cliff. Everything else was, at least in the movie-verse, authentic. Cheang told Edmund Lee at Time Out HK what he was going for:
You can sense the characters’ human qualities through their driving styles. Jiang is elusive and fond of trickery in his ancient S13, while Chan favors a more barreling forward damn-the-torpedoes style in the police sedan. Lo Fung is harder to pin down, as he is only given one opportunity to show his driving chops, called back to the wheel after decades of refusal. He prefers a more sensorial style, as indicated when he turns off the AC and lowers the window. But everything can fail, especially when one depends on machines.
For in Motorway crashes have devastating impact, the steel frames of cars as permeable as skin. The more the vehicles are mastered and become extensions of drivers’ bodies, the more vulnerable they become. Every protagonist is either bruised, battered or dead by the end, with Jiang’s rabbit-punches keeping Chan off-guard until a final showdown on a pier, in which both woozy fighters circle each other in a screeching pas de deux. Motorway is a brooding original which turns the manic breathlessness of a car chase into a subtle duel of personalities.
MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D Academy Awards Action Films Actors Actors' Endorsements Actresses animal stars Animation Anime Anthology Films Art Direction Art in Movies Asians in Hollywood Australian CInema Autobiography Avant-Garde Aviation Awards B-movies Beer in Film Behind the Scenes Best of the Year lists Biography Biopics Black Film Blu-Ray Books on Film Boxing films British Cinema Canadian Cinema Character Actors Chicago Film History Children Cinematography Classic Films College Life on Film Comedy Comic Book Movies Crime Czech Film Dance on Film Digital Cinema Directors Disaster Films Documentary Drama DVD Early Talkies Editing Educational Films European Influence on American Cinema Experimental Exploitation Fairy Tales on Film Faith or Christian-based Films Family Films Film Composers Film Criticism Film Festival 2015 film festivals Film History in Florida Film Noir Film Scholars Film titles Filmmaking Techniques Films About Gambling Films of the 1930s Films of the 1960s Films of the 1970s Films of the 1980s Food in Film Foreign Film French Film Gangster films Genre Genre spoofs HD & Blu-Ray Holiday Movies Hollywood history Hollywood lifestyles Horror Horror Movies Icons independent film Italian Film Japanese Film Korean Film Literary Adaptations Martial Arts Melodramas Memorabilia Method Acting Mexican Cinema Moguls Monster Movies Movie Books Movie Costumes movie flops Movie locations Movie lovers Movie Magazines Movie Reviewers Movie settings Movie Stars Movie titles Movies about movies Music in Film Musicals New Releases Outdoor Cinema Paranoid Thrillers Parenting on film Pirate movies Polish film industry political thrillers Politics in Film Pornography Pre-Code Producers Race in American Film Remakes Revenge Road Movies Romance Romantic Comedies Russian Film Industry Satire Scandals Science Fiction Screenwriters Semi-documentaries Serials Set design/production design Short Films Silent Film silent films Social Problem Film Spaghetti Westerns Sports Sports on Film Stereotypes Straight-to-DVD Studio Politics Stunts and stuntmen Suspense thriller Swashbucklers TCM Classic Film Festival TCM Underground Television The British in Hollywood The Germans in Hollywood The Hungarians in Hollywood The Irish in Hollywood Theaters Thriller Trains in movies U.S.S. Indianapolis Underground Cinema VOD War film Westerns Women in the Film Industry Women's Weepies