Once a cult favourite known for his nihilistic vision, Soi Cheang has since mellowed into one of our cinema’s leading helmers. He talks to Edmund Lee about his latest outing, Motorway.
While Soi Cheang’s Motorway isn’t nearly a family movie, it’s fair to say that the street-racing actioner isn’t going to remind many of the cult director formerly known for such hysterical thrillers as Dog Bite Dog (2006), Shamo (2007) or even the Milkyway-produced Accident (2009). Developed from a story idea by the American scriptwriter Joey O’Bryan, one of the writers of 2001’s Fulltime Killer, Cheang’s latest sees various master drivers on both sides of the law face-off with their incredible techniques and, remarkably, not so much with speed.
Were you a fan of street racing movies before directing this film?
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.
Do you think the recent racing movies, including Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Initial D (2005) and The Fast and the Furious series, look too ‘perfect’ in a way?
A little bit – but it’s not easy [to make those films], that much I know. In Initial D, for example, I know that a lot of the racing sequences were shot for real. Andrew Lau and Alan Mak wanted very smooth and elegant action for their film; that’s a different [focus] from my film. Theirs is more about racing than gambling with your life. As for The Fast and the Furious, I have a feeling that many of the scenes were done with CGI, because [some of the moves] they did were just impossible! They’re lacking the touch of authenticity that only comes with actual driving.
What attracted you to take up this film project in the very beginning?
When I read [Joey O’Bryan’s] synopsis, I found it quite interesting. I thought it would be nice to transpose the story to Hong Kong.
How different is the finished film to the original story?
The differences are quite substantial, although I’ve kept the [major] character settings: the showdown between a getaway driver and a driver working for the police force. Then again, a lot of the finer details have been changed. I think that was around three years ago… and I still remember there was the setting of a stuntman in the story then – that part was later cut out, to keep it a cops-and-robbers story.
Have you seen Drive?
[Sighs, smiling] I know I can’t avoid this question! But I’ve never seen that film.
I’m only bringing it up because you mentioned the stuntman setting.
Right. Actually I only heard about Drive when I was halfway through my shoot. [Nods towards Johnnie To, who happens to walk by in front of where we’re sitting] He was a jury member at Cannes that year, and we only knew about that film when the festival programme was announced. We were a bit worried before seeing the film, but he came back and told us that we’re a totally different movie. [Laughs] As I’ve heard that Drive is a good film, I really didn’t want to see it – because you won’t get affected by watching a bad movie, but you’ll inevitably want to learn from a good film. Up to this day, my [Drive] DVD is still untouched at home. I still dare not see the film. I really don’t want to
They’re not so similar, so you should feel free to watch it now! Actually, when I watched your film, I was a bit surprised by how simple the story is.
Frankly, we’ve decided from the start that this story needs a very simple structure. It’s the structure of an inspirational movie, following Shawn Yue’s [character] as he turns from an ignorant young man into a mature driver. In the end, he learns that his destiny isn’t to defeat all the masters in the world, but simply to top himself.
Really? An inspirational movie from you?
Indeed, everybody goes through phases. [Laughs] Perhaps [it’s because of the fact] I’ve formed my family and had my own kid [Cheang’s four-year-old daughter] in the past few years. All I can say is that, in the past, I wasn’t able to see the future. But now that I have to teach my child, I have to tell her how to look to the future even though she’s facing difficulties. There are always roads forward. When I saw her learn to walk – the efforts she put in and the many falls that she’d taken – and then compare that to how spontaneously she’s walking today, I can see the consequence of efforts. I can see the future now.
Motorway 車手 opens on Jun 21.