Braking News: Motorway (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:

I’m not exactly a fan of racing movies, but I have fond memories for the racing scenes in several crime thrillers, such as [William Friedkin’s] The French Connection (1971) and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), as well as the likes of Ringo Lam’s Full Alert (1997). When you watch the old movies, you can actually feel that someone is driving the car; when you see The Fast and the Furious movies nowadays, you can’t help but feel that part of their beautiful [action sequences] have been animated. I really want to go back to the human dimension of driving. I want to find out who these drivers are as human beings.

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.

0 Response Braking News: Motorway (2012)
Posted By woodworks : September 4, 2012 12:17 pm

Siunds cool…..:)

Posted By SergioM : September 4, 2012 2:08 pm

I read a rave review of the film a couple of months ago and I’m glad to know that now it’s out on DVD and on blou-ray yet. Ordering a copy today

Posted By swac44 : September 4, 2012 4:43 pm

Hope a North American release for Motorway happens soon. Nice shout-out for Ringo Lam’s Full Alert, I think Lam is an underappreciated master of the modern thriller/action film and is ripe for reappraisal (I’ve read that he retired from filmmaking after co-directing 2007′s Triangle with Tsui Hark and Johnnie To). Any director who can manage the best film of Jean Claude Van Damme’s theatrical heyday (Maximum Risk) deserves to have his best work seen by more eyes (can’t say I’ve seen his more recent JCVD collaborations Replicant or In Hell.

Posted By Dave M. : September 5, 2012 11:49 am

Thanks for writing about this movie! As soon as I read the comparison to THE DRIVER, one of my favorite car chase movies, I just knew I had to see this. While the dialogue is not as strong as The Driver, (Bruce Dern and Ryan O’Neil are terrific), the authentic driving and characters in tune with their vehicles more than makes up for it. I really liked it and will watch it again. If only last year’s DRIVE had spent as much time behind the wheel as MOTORWAY. It’s nice to see there’ s others out there who appreciate non-cgi car movies. Some of my faves include RONIN, BULLITT, DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY, TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA, THE DRIVER, THE MASTER TOUCH.

Posted By Dave M. : September 5, 2012 11:52 am

I should also add THE LAST RUN with George C. Scott.

Posted By Sergio : September 5, 2012 12:09 pm

Which is why I want to see Motorway so much. I LOVE The Driver. Brilliant film and I have yet to see anything that matches. Light years far superior to a pretentious load of crap like Drive.

A few months ago the Film Society at Lincoln Center in N.Y. showed a new restored print of the film with Walter Hill is person. Could this mean a blu-ray is coming out in the future? The Last Run car sequences aren’t that bad either. And Dirty Mary is in a class all by itself

Posted By swac44 : September 5, 2012 1:31 pm

Somewhere I have an old VHS tape simply titled CHASE! with favourite scenes from movies like The French Connection, Bullitt and The Seven Ups. It made for good video wallpaper at parties and so on, I think maybe even Freebie and the Bean made the cut. There’s just something about a ’70s car chase with those classic metal behemoths screaming away.

Now if only there could be a BD/DVD release of the first Gone in 60 Seconds with the original soundtrack left intact.

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