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Motorway: Film Review

Motorway Film Still - H 2013

The Bottom Line

A simple but entertaining series of car chases in and around Hong Kong.

Venue

Santa Barbara Film Festival

Cast

Anthony Wong, Shawn Yue, Guo Xiaodong, Gordon Lam, Barbie Hsu, Josie Ho, Michelle Ye, Li Haitao, Li Guangjie

Director

Soi Cheang

The car chase thriller is the second collaboration between director Soi Cheang and producer Johnnie To.

A relentless car chase thriller that ends up feeling less like a Hong Kong version of the Fast and Furious films than like an existentialist cousin of Walter Hill's The Driver, Motorway lurches along at first but really shifts into high gear in the second half. Borderline humorous in the way concocts excuses for cops to start chasing bad guys every few minutes, this second collaboration between Macau-born director Soi Cheang and producer Johnnie To, after the thriller Accident in 2009, opened in Asia in July and is too strictly genre-oriented to fit the agendas of most Western festivals or foreign film distributors.

The chase that opens the film feel downright clutzy, as two Kowloon auto cops, young speed-freak Chan (Shawn Yue) and seen-it-all veteran Lo (Anthony Wong) fail to apprehend a car that's charging through the streets and highways at an alarming pace. With the pair demoted to speed-gun duty, things poke along for a while until Mainland Chinese gangster Jiang Xin (Guo Xiaodong) gets himself deliberately hauled into jail so he can spring a cohort who will pull a big heist for which he'll be the driver.

For a while, interest flags because there's nothing much at stake and the chases don't produce any real tension. Through the middle section, car talk takes precedence over plot, as Lo tries to pass on some know-how to Chan before the older man's retirement, notably how to make a seemingly impossible turn in the very tight space. Veteran Wong makes the most from very little in building Lo into a fairly interesting character — he seems quite young to be retiring — and Michelle Ye similarly supplies more than required as Lo's wife.

U.S.-born Joey O'Bryan co-wrote the script for the 2001 release Fulltime Killer, which was co-directed by To, and once the story he wrote for this one and then scripted with Szeto Kam-yuen and Francis Fung sharpens its focus, Motorway snaps into place. The action is now nocturnal, it moves from the city to winding roads in the hills, the use of slow-mo increases, as does the ratio of music to talk, there are moments of stillness and an air of moody fatalism descends upon the proceedings that makes the details of the plot seem less important than the fact that the men keep racing their cars, just as surely as the Earth keeps turning. “If you lose your drive, you're worse off than a broken car,” Lo advises his protege; as almost mock-profound as this sounds, it does serve to echo the man-defined-as-action ethos that asserts itself at the end.

Some of the car stuff has a catch-as-catch-can feel, but some sequences are cool and breath-catching, including one in which a car is made to encircle it prey like a boxer might dance while encircling his victim. The cast is solid and it all comes in at under 90 minutes.

Venue: Santa Barbara Film Festival
Production: Sil-Metropole Organization, Media Asia Films
Cast: Anthony Wong, Shawn Yue, Guo Xiaodong, Gordon Lam, Barbie Hsu, Josie Ho, Michelle Ye, Li Haitao, Li Guangjie
Director: Soi Cheang
Screenwriters: Joey O'Bryan, Szeto Kam-yuen, Francis Fung, based on an original story by Joey O'Bryan
Producer: Johnnie To
Executive producers: Song Dai, John Chong
Director of photography: Edmond Fung, Kenny Tse
Production designer: Simon So
Costume designer: Boey Wong
Editors: David Richardson, Allen Leung
Music: Javier Jamaux, Alex Gopher
86 minutes