In the opening minutes of Initial D, we watch as a street legal sports car “drifts” down a narrow mountain road – the driver accelerating into the tight corners, then gliding around the glasslike hairpin bends. All shot under moonlight, this short sequence captures the sublime and surreal beauty of pure auto power.
Initial D was originally slated for Tsui Hark to direct, but early in the production he left the project and was replaced by Infernal Affairs directing duo Andrew Lau (A Man Called Hero) and Alan Mak (A War Named Desire). Good choices, as both know their way around fantasy-action flicks, especially Lau with The Storm Riders foremost on his CV.
Filmed on location in Japan, it’s slightly off-putting to see a cast of Hong Kong actors taking Japanese roles with everyone speaking Cantonese.
Canto pop flavour-of-the-month Jay Chou makes his silver screen debut in the lead role of Takumi, the Akina racing god: a title that promises more than this limited actor can provide. But the reality of manga to film roles is that the audience doesn’t expect much more than a live-action comic book performance. In contrast, Chapman To (Golden Chicken) ridiculously overacts as the wannabe street king Itsuki. It’s Japanese starlet Anne Suzuki who gives the movie’s best performance as the likeable but vulnerable Natsuki.
There’s a clever generational twist with the film’s two father figures played by veteran HK actors Anthony Wong and Kenny Bee. The former is at times hilarious as the drunken, leering, tofu making, Bunta, while Kenny Bee is believable as the hard working owner of the Mount Akina servo. Jordan Chan is along for the ride, literally, as a professional street car racer who suffers a severe case of gravel rash and wounded pride. Shawn Yu and Edison Chen receive a high billing but it’s all PR puff, as both have little screen time as competing drivers.
The visceral highlight of Initial D is flagged early on and is well worth waiting for. The King of the Mountain duel is an absolute eye-popper and worth the ticket price on its own. Just as director Lau did with his previous auto epic, The Legend of Speed, Initial D raises the bar internationally on CGI action-fantasy sequences. You can bet Jerry Bruckheimer’s CGI Hollywood will be putting this fantastic passage of film under the microscope in the very near future.
Some will be surprised, maybe even annoyed, with the abrupt ending – it’s certainly not subtle – but all it really does is usher in the probable sequel.
Andrew Lau seems to have the Midas touch when it comes to Hong Kong film-making, from The Storm Riders through Infernal Affairs to Initial D – may his cinematic “driftings” continue to prosper. All power to him!