|Derek Yee steps back to take the role of producer for Derek Chiuís The Road Less Traveled, a thematic continuation of sorts from Lost in Time and a well-meaning attempt at a low-key human drama driven by characters and credible situations. Instead of trying to make a Hong Kong story understandable to a Mainland Chinese audience or vice versa, Derek Chiu tells a story that tries to cover both Hong Kong and Mainland sensibilities. The intentions here almost make it acceptable to excuse the filmís faults, but The Road Less Traveled unfortunately has too many faults to excuse.
Like in Lost in Time, Chiu and his co-writers (including Yee, credited as one of three ďassociate script writersĒ along with Chan Kin-Chung as the script's co-writer) focus on another down-to-earth profession: cross-border truck drivers. The driver in this story, Liang (Louis Koo), may be the nicest truck driver in the world. He treats customs officers with respect, he looks over the plants in his truck like they're his own children, he listens to classical music during his drives, heís an accomplished chef, and he even keeps a garden in his urban home.
But like all nice people, Liang is also unfortunate. Liang accidentally runs over a Mainland restaurant owner one rainy night, leaving his pregnant wife Lu Yan (Huang Yi) alone to take over the rural roadside business. Despite paying the necessary compensation decided by the government, Liang is still racked with guilt over the accident. Going against the advice of his materialistic real estate agent girlfriend Susan (Karen Mok), Liang makes various efforts to help Yan, from replacing her flat bike tire to even teaching her how to steam fish. The catch: Yan doesnít know Liang was the man that killed her husband.
The plight of the cross-border truck driver is one rarely dealt with in Hong Kong films, and Chiu does manage to give certain insights into the profession, particularly the friction between Mainland Chinese locals and Mandarin-deficient Hong Kongers. However, the film lacks the interesting details about the central profession that made Lost in Time stand out in the same genre.
On the other hand, Chiu and his co-writers are more successful in accurately depicting the mentality of materialistic Hong Kongers, who see homes as commodities and value money more than people. Some may accuse the film of pandering to Chinese audiences by portraying urban Hong Kongers in a negative light, especially when compared to the simpler life in Mainland China. However, Chiu actually achieves a surprising balance between the two ways of life. As the embodiment of the negative Hong Konger qualities, Susan actually comes off as a somewhat sympathetic character, though part of that is also due to Mokís naturally likeable screen presence.
Louis Koo gives a more-than-competent dramatic performance after a string of roles that ranged from over-the-top slapstick (the Allís Well Ends Well movies) to intentionally wooden (Accident). Even though he shows the limits of his acting range in the more demanding scenes, Koo provides enough of a down-to-earth quality (aided in part by his infamous less-than-stellar Mandarin) to make his all-too-nice guy character one that we can relate to.
Koo is weaker towards the end of the film, though that can be attributed to the story leaning towards romance rather than remaining about reconciliation with tragedy. Chiu moves the film at a slow, steady pace, dragging itself to its expected plot twists. But towards the end, the story feels like it has already run its course, only to go on for another half an hour to cram in the romance. The muted relationship created between Liang and Yan is believable to that point, but the script hasnít built up enough to make the romance between the two that convincing. Chiu ends the film on a relatively open note, but the lack of closure only makes the final half hour an even more laborious sit.
Nevertheless, The Road Less Traveled is a competent melodrama thatís only disappointing when considering the talent behind it and the potential the material had. The film has the makings of a solid, low-key drama thatís wasted by clunky writing and an unnecessarily prolonged ending. This film is still a significant improvement over Brothers for Derek Chiu, who handles this kind of material far better than ambitious gangster action-dramas. On the other hand, everyone involved in the film has probably done much better work than The Road Less Traveled. Theyíve also done much worse. (Kevin Ma, 2011)