Cheang Pou-soi has been directing movies since 1999, but I never knew about him until 2015 when I was blown away by KILL ZONE 2 (SPL II). MOTORWAY is from 2012, and it’s a much simpler film – shorter, less complicated, less thematically heavy, and it works really well that way. Maybe some of this simplicity comes out of the type of action. Martial arts scenes like KILL ZONE 2’s require increasing complexity – for example the knockout prison riot scene – but this is a car chase movie. At its heart it’s about two drivers. One guy in a car driving very fast after another guy in a car. Literally straight forward.
It’s a serious movie, but it’s got a nice tinge of absurdity to it. Its law enforcement protagonists are not cool homicide detectives or badass SWAT dudes, they’re part of an elite squad of, uh, traffic cops. I guess they’re there for their high level driving skills, but their regular job is camping out with the speed gun, pulling people over, wearing dorky windbreakers and reflective vests, the kind of thing most action movie cops only have to do in a funny montage after they get in trouble. Cheung (Shawn Yue, LEGEND OF THE FIST, THE GUILLOTINES) takes the job seriously and is annoyed that his older partner Lo (Anthony Wong, HARD BOILED, GEN-X COPS 2, EXILED, THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR, IP MAN: FINAL FIGHT) seems to not give a fuck. (Having him browse literature about an upcoming retirement seminar is a good spin on the ol’ two-weeks-from-retirement cliche).
When they pull over some rich asshole who then decides to make a run for it we see Cheung in action – ignoring Lo’s instructions, he pursues the speeder through traffic with precise skill and an intense look of concentration. He fails, so he takes the dashboard cam footage (he ejects an actual VHS tape from a VCR in the trunk!) to study his errors, like a boxer.
And then it gets more extreme: he goes to a garage where he talks to his guys, orders some special coils from overseas for the engine of his own car, later hands over a month’s salary in cash to pay for them just so he can track down the escaped speeder while off duty and “race” him. I’m not sure if causing him to crash is a bonus or the goal. But Cheung is the god damn Punisher of traffic cops.
I started to think he was a dumbass in the bar scene where he sees Yee (Barbie Shu, REIGN OF ASSASSINS) playing pool and thinks a cool way to hit on her is to write his phone number on the board and challenge her to a game, saying if she loses she has to write her number on there. Not only does she hand him several of his asses, she adds the extra flair of walking over to the board and asking him to hold her poolstick while she takes the pen to cross out his number and then she leaves.
So she’s outside and believe it or not he signs up for another round of sorely-deserved humiliation by driving up to her and making another unsolicited bet – if he can use his car to knock a littered Coke can into a sewer she has to give him her number. He doesn’t wait for her to agree before he effortlessly skids out, hitting the can with the back tire, kicking it like a soccer ball. Then he drifts in a circle, the car gracefully skating just around her, never touching her, but staying very close to her. It’s a beautiful shot, obviously an effect, but she stands there, doesn’t flinch and is not remotely impressed, giving the forced half smile of a woman trying to be polite to an old man complimenting her “nice figure” or something.
When he asks for her number again she says, “Don’t bother. I’ve seen reckless drivers like you in the hospital. I’m sure we’ll meet again very soon.” Not flirtatious. Cold. And then she throws the Coke can into his car. I love her.
And something important occurred to me during that scene. The tone of this movie is almost nothing like the THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS series, but it does have a certain quality in common that I realize could be called automotive magical realism. It’s the idea of a serious car person’s almost supernatural connection to vehicles. In FAST & FURIOUS, Dom can stand at the site of an accident and envision exactly how it happened – he can touch a skidmark and know what type of NOS was used and who sells it. In FURIOUS 6 he can jump out of a car and catch Letty in mid-air and land safely… as long as they smash into another car. In MOTORWAY, Cheung can make his car move like a ballet dancer because that’s what great drivers do. If you’ve got it, if you’re in the zone, if you touch the steering wheel right and tap your feet around, you can do anything in a car. You could fly to the moon. You could control the weather. You could part the ocean. You could lead a herd of buffalo.
Nobody quite goes that far in this one. But I believe they could. Cheung’s opposite is Sun (Guo Xiaodong, TRUE LEGEND), an expert getaway driver. In a DRIVE-esque sequence of moody quiet we follow him getting his preferred vehicle out of storage, choosing a leather keychain with the number 1 on it, driving it on streets and alleys (including a narrow spot no normal driver could fit a vehicle through), casing out his plan to bust out a criminal (Li Haitao, VENGEANCE, GALLANTS). When he goes through with it we see that the plan involves both getting his car impounded and getting himself arrested. Gotta respect that.
This event changes the dynamic between Cheung and Lo, because Lo knows from the nearly impossible alley turn he made that this is a guy who got away from him years ago, leaving him almost dead and making him stop driving. The traffic cop equivalent of coming across the calling card of that serial killer who seemed to disappear all those years ago. So he rededicates himself to the job, wants to drive again, helps to mentor Cheung as he practices that move on cones. “I can make this turn.” A little bit TOKYO DRIFT there.
In order to fully discuss what I love about this movie I’ve been liberally spoiling everything – let me warn you I’m getting into major second half stuff here. We all knew Cheung would end up at the hospital, running into Dr. Yee who rejected him at the bar and dissed his reckless driving. But it’s not the “I told you so” she might’ve imagined, or the flirtatious stitching up of Dalton and Doc in ROAD HOUSE. It’s actually a tragic circumstance where she has to be the one to tell him his partner has died. We don’t see Lo on his death bed, or even his funeral. We see something more important: his wrecked car. Cheung watches from the window of the hospital as it’s towed past. Later he sits with Lo’s widow (Michelle Ye, DRUG WAR), looking at it from across the street, similar to how two characters might sit at a grave.
Now Cheung is alone and has ten times more reason to catch this motherfucker – to finish the job his mentor didn’t, to be the best driver in the movie. So it launches into a whole lot of chasing. It’s a pretty classical style, steady cameras, often attached to the vehicles, really capturing the momentum well. There are some great shots where the camera appears to be extended from an arm out in front so you can see the car and the driver and it moves exactly with them as they spin and slide around. I wondered how they had so many shots where the actors seem to really be driving at high speeds. They also cut often to the engines, which make pleasingly smooth clicks and whirs and have high tech parts with little lights on them.
You can probly guess who comes out on top. I love how he handles the win. Sun is stuck in his car, can’t get it to move. Cheung calmly walks over, doesn’t yell or attack, just handcuffs his wrist to the steering wheel. Letting him stay in his vehicle, merge with it. But he pulls the key out and takes it, with its keychain with the number 1 on it. The championship belt. Poetry. There’s a bit of an epilogue, a scene later on with Cheung now the veteran with a younger partner, and they pull over Dr. Yee. He doesn’t necessarily “get the girl,” but he gets an opportunity to use his talent to help her do her job, rather than to obnoxiously peacock in front of her. A happy ending that’s not too full of shit.
MOTORWAY was nominated for six Hong Kong Film Awards including best film and best director. (COLD WAR won that year.) It was produced by Johnnie To, who Pou-soi had been working with for years as an assistant director. That same year Pou-soi directed second unit for DRUG WAR.
Thanks to @pod_hard for getting me to watch this by generously sending me a blu-ray. It’s a good one.