Motorway (Hong Kong, 2012)

Full Disclosure: I am not a fan of auto racing films. The fetishization of cold metal and hot rubber screeching through obviously staged street scenes has always baffled me. To me, a scene of cars racing through a dark urban environment is seemingly interchangeable with a plethora of car chase scenes in any number of films, be they foreign or domestic, classic or contemporary, live action or CGI-drenched. Add to that, the fact that the editing may be fast in these films, but rarely is any sense of excitement or suspense conveyed. No, these films have always seemed more concerned with making the cars look good and completely sidestepping the person behind the wheel. And as the Fast and Furious franchise goes into its fifth feature installment, I doubt the genre will trade in its obsessive need to dazzle for some much needed depth.  Of course, with all that said, I can’t help but obsessively re-watch a good cops-and-robbers movie. These films feature my favorite archetypical figure in film: the manic obsessive cop with a death wish, modern-day Ahabs steering their steel dinghies on pavement and spending every waking moment stalking their great white whales.

Soi Cheang’s new Hong Kong actioner Motorway bucks the worst trends of the racing genre and smartly embraces the tropes of the latter.  It tells a familiar story, with help from and the resources provided by Milkway Image, in a manner evoking the best crime films.

The film begins in media res with a car chase between Cheung (Shawn Yue) and Lo (Anthony Wong), members of the Hong Kong police department’s Invisible Squad, and a couple of wannabe racing college kids. Wasting no time at all, we quickly understand the dynamic between Cheung and Lo. The young hotshot rookie Cheung is more of a racer than a cop at the beginning of the film. His partner Lo even remarks that maybe the boy joined the force to “speed legally”. Cheung initially appears to be a hothead but he, like all characters in a crime film, has a code of honor: protect the innocent, catch the criminal, and loyalty to those who wear the badge. In contrast to the neophyte Cheung is Lo, an old-hat pro, who, like old-hat pros in crime films, is only a few days away from retirement. Their relationship more mentor-pupil than father and son.

The action quickly gets going with the entry of the calm and cool Jiang (Guo Xiaodong).  A getaway driver who seems far more comfortable moving on four wheels rather than two legs, best online casino Jiang has a strong connection to Lo’s past. Both men dueled on Hong Kong’s streets decades ago and, though Lo gave Jiang a run for his money with his driving skills, it cost Lo a stint in the hospital. With Jiang’s reappearance, Lo is looking for a rematch, but years away from being behind the wheel have dulled Lo’s driving skills. It is only with Cheung, his partner, that he can amend the blemish of letting Jiang get away so many years ago.

Although Motorway does have a heist at the center of its plot, the film is far more concerned with the chase and in all honesty that is what the film will be primarily remembered for. Unlike lesser driving films that are merely satisfied with trying to top one stunt after another, Cheang and editor Allen Leung take great pains to differentiate each chase scene. The initial confrontation between Cheung and Jiang is shot very traditionally with the camera shifting between Cheung and Jiang’s perspective, the suspense of whether Jiang will escape or Cheung will catch him steadily crescendoing until a brilliant alleyway standoff between Cheung and Jiang as both men use their cars as makeshift battering rams.

After that, Motorway then takes us up to the mountains where Cheang and his production crew smartly utilize sound, quick cuts, and a mix of tight camera shots and gliding camera movements which not only hug the curves of the cars it follows but also the perilous cliff sides.  It was with this scene that I fell in love with this film; the slow burn and the fact that you couldn’t be sure who would make it out of the mountain alive created a genuine feeling of suspense. Cheung, Lo, and Jiang may be genre archetypes but during these sequences, the characters aren’t merely pawns in the film’s story. You’ve gained some backstory to these characters. You know their weaknesses and most importantly you know what they stand to lose if they don’t make it down from there.

The final chase sequence, taking place in a dark and crowded parking garage is where it all comes together. Cheung and Jiang face off in the parking garage and, though they do engage in a bit of hide-and-seek, the real action begins as the men in their respective cars finally square off. Charging at one another, taking a few careful shots and then balletically spinning around to dodge their opponent it seemed more like a match between a bull and a toreador than a confrontation between two men at their breaking points.

Aside from the top class visuals, what also elevates the film to masterpiece status for me is the soundtrack by Xavier Jamaux and Alex Gopher, who produce a synth heavy score for the film. The driving rhythm [pun intended] effectively evokes an 80’s Miami Vice style of speed, flash, and danger. And like all perfect film scores, Jamaux and Gopher’s work is not just aural wallpaper, it is an integral ingredient that, when inserted, gets the heart pumping, as if we are also in the car, gripping the steering wheel, and feeling every curve and bump of the road.

As an example of the very best in crime and action cinema, Motorway delivers in ways that its American counterparts so often fail to do. In fact, the film should have the subtitle Zen and the Art of the High-Speed Chase, due not just to its reverence towards capturing the grace and power of an automobile, but also because Soi Cheang does the impossible in Motorway. He actually gives each car that Cheung and Jiang drive a personality, in effect breathing life into cold metal and hard rubber.  In the process, Cheang clearly shows that, with the three major chase set-pieces, the soul and personality of a driver is evident in the way they handle the wheel. Of course, if you’re not into all that poetic jibber-jabber then just enjoy the macho action scenes, which the film has plenty of.