September 4, 2012

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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.

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