Part of Connor McMorran's coverage for MKC of the Edinburgh International Film Festival (June 19-30, 2013).
Films have the incredible ability to present the world to us in ways that are impossible in real life. They can, through the use of visual and audio techniques, create a heightened sense of awareness about particular aspects of life and allow us to experience the world in a completely new way. In other words, film morphs reality into a hyper-reality. Hong Kong filmmaker Soi Cheang has always had a very visceral quality to his works, placing emphasis on extreme violence and allowing visual style to really carry his over-the-top approach to cinema. Things changed somewhat when Cheang directed 2009’s Accident, produced by Johnnie To and made for To and fellow director Wai Ka-Fai’s studio Milkyway Image. Accident was one of the most interesting Hong Kong films of 2009, and it saw Cheang take a more reserved approach by placing an emphasis on atmosphere over intensity.
Motorway is Cheang’s second work for Milkyway, and it continues this different stylistic approach. It follows rookie cop Cheung and his close-to-retirement partner Lo as they attempt to catch one of the most notorious getaway drivers who has returned to Hong Kong after years off the grid. A cop drama through and through, Motorway is enhanced through its incredible style and commitment to presenting a highly atmospheric and hyper-realistic experience.
Given the main theme of the film revolves around getaway drivers, it makes sense that a large amount of the film is spent discussing car technique, modifying cars, driving, and a decent amount of chase sequences. The way that Cheang presents these moments to the audience however, is where the film truly shines. The characters in the film clearly live for the passion of driving, it is what defines their lives, and the film takes great care to bring this across in every way possible. Be it the almost ritualistic sequence in which Sun modifies his car, to the various scenes in which the only audio is the roar of a car engine and a focus on the miniscule changes that the characters are able to hear. This gift of extra-sensory abilities bestowed on the characters is shown through how the film is presented to the audience. Therefore, for the running time of Motorway we are also given the ability to perceive the world as they do.
The role of the car in this film should not be overlooked, and the way that Cheang not only shoots cars in movement but also when at rest helps emphasise their importance. When one of the characters in the film dies, we are not shown a funeral but rather a tow-truck dragging away their wrecked car. The bond between the driver and the car is shown here to such an incredible degree that the film could almost be seen as a work of post-humanism, discussing the melding of man and machine. However, more people will most likely see it as a genre film, and as one Motorway also excels. It wastes no time in establishing characters, allowing Cheang to spend most of the 90 minute running time prioritising the world through its characters viewpoint. As such, its clear cut genre narrative, which ultimately amounts to little more than ‘chase the bad guy’, becomes an engrossing and hugely entertaining experience.
Motorway shows that by focusing on the presentation, a genre film can still be a satisfying and even original experience. It’s a film in which all the pieces fall into place, from the brilliant score to the final chase scene which is every bit as mental as it is physical. Furthermore, it shows a more confident and assured work from Cheang, who builds on the potential shown in Accident in every way.
Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema. For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update, Korean Cinema News and the Weekly Korean Reviews, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (Korean Standard Time).