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Drive, he said
A region 2 DVD review of INITIAL D: DRIFT RACER / TAU MAN JI D by Slarek
 

As Initial D: Drift Racer opens and the English/Chinese opening credits appear over circling aerial shots of twisted mountain roads and twangy techno fills the soundtrack (more on that later), I was reminded of something, I just couldn't pinpoint what. It was the next day when I ran the same sequence on a computer monitor at work that the answer came from a colleague. "What's that?" he asked as he passed, "A new Grand Turismo game?" Funny you should say that...

Drift racing appears to be one of media import flavours of the moment, being central to both this film and the US production The Fast and the Furious 3: Tokyo Drift and even making an appearance in the upcoming Pixar animation Cars. For those not in the know, drift racing – or drifting as it is more commonly known – is a technique in motor sport in which corners are taken in what is essentially a controlled skid or power slide, much like the motorcycles in speedway riding. It first came to serious prominence in Japan in the early 1970s, when it became the trademark technique of motorcycle rider turned car racer Kunimitsu Takahashi, but its present cult status relates more to the illegal drift races held at night on mountain roads in Nagano, Hakone and Irohazaka by young Japanese boy racers. It was from this that the hugely successful Initial D manga comics sprang, and it is on these that Initial D the movie is based.

There's a good chance that a few of you have already painted a brain picture of what a manga-inspired Hong Kong actioner based around drift racing will look and play like, and although I'm not one for pre-judging any film I'd have to say that, to a certain degree at least, you're probably right. The characters are all familiar generic standards with little depth and their narrative paths are laid clearly out for the audience to easily predict. Our leading man is Takumi (Jay Chou), whose father Bunta (Anthony Wong) runs a tofu shop by day and gets plastered every night. Takumi spends his days working at a garage owned by Yuuichi, whose son Itsuki is Takumi's best friend and fancies himself as a street racer, but his attempt to prove himself on the winding roads of Mount Akina where the street racers meet marks him as a clear no-hoper. Takumi, on the other hand, has been delivering tofu at night on this route for some time and has developed a natural talent for fast driving and drifting around corners, and is soon challenged both by the super-cool Ryousuke and overly cocky team racer Kyouchi. Now how do you reckon this plays out? Takumi's underdog status is enhanced by his older, less powerful car, which of course breaks down at a key stage in the story. But wait a minute, his drunken father was once a champion driver himself, and if he can just pull himself together...

OK, complaining that the plot and characters are by the numbers in a film like Initial D might seem to be missing the point – after all, I've put up with some woefully trite nonsense to sit ringside at a good kung-fu fight, and if watching cars hurtle sideways round hairpin bends floats your boat then you won't care two hoots about the shortcuts taken elsewhere. Certainly it's the driving that's the pull here, and impressive it is, thanks in no small part to an abandonment of the CGI of Hollywood actioners (save for a couple of shots in which the camera flies through car windows and into engines) in favour of letting a team of real drift racers show off their considerable handling skills. True to its title, the drift races are the film's raison d'être, with other plot points – including Takumi's romance with innocent-looking Natsuki, a sub-story that has one of the film's few unexpected twists – dealt with hurriedly and having a tacked-on feel.

Spiffy though the driving sequences are, the edge is occasionally taken off them by superficially flashy camera and editing tricks, which recognises both the comic book origins and the MTV attention span of its target audience. Fortunately this is kept to minimum in the races themselves, which are inventively shot and briskly edited, to the extent that cut-aways to onlookers or other interested parties trigger an instant desire to get the hell back to the race. The emphasis here is as much on technique as speed, with the sometimes exciting bolted-to-car and roadside shots intercut close-ups of gear changes and and an intriguing pedal action that involves tapping the brake and accelerator at the same time.

Despite the shallow elements, it proves intermittently engaging stuff. The slight oddness of having Japanese characters played by Chinese actors and speaking (post-dubbed) Cantonese is offset by an otherwise authentically Japanese feel to the characters and settings (OK, it was filmed in Japan, but you know what I mean). Jay Chou's Takumi in particular makes for an enjoyably unassuming lead – reluctantly competitive and seemingly half asleep when he drives, he barely even acknowledges a race win, which proves a refreshing change from the triumphant whooping and steering wheel hammering you'd probably find in is US equivalent. And despite a few minor gripes about the handling of the action and the predictability of the character and narrative arcs, I still found myself secretly rooting for Takumi each time he sat behind the wheel.

In every other respect the film delivers on expectations both high and low – it's niftily paced, slickly presented and the races themselves are tastily executed, but it's also largely predictable and ultimately insubstantial. If you're coming to the film for the cars and the driving then there's plenty here to hold your interest, but those looking for a film with the character and plot depth of the directors' previous Infernal Affairs trilogy may be in for a bit of a let down.

the music

I mention this separately because there are two music tracks included, the Chinese original and a new score commissioned specifically for the UK market, written by Nicholas Zart for Fuel. Now views will differ on this process of rescoring films for different markets, but frankly I find the whole process annoying, both in its condescending reading of the potential UK audience (the belief that they won't watch a film about racing if the music is too 'Eastern') and the very idea that someone not involved in the original production thinks they know more than the director(s) about how their film should sound. This decision appears to be spring from a belief that the potential UK audience will not be the traditional Hong Kong action cinema fans, for whom the original score would meet with generic expectations, but Men and Motors regulars and computer game racing wannabes who are just going to buy the film for the driving scenes alone, and for whom the original score would be, well....well, WHAT exactly?

Listening to both I cannot see what the issue was with the original – sure, there are some cheesy musical moments, especially during scenes involving Takumi and Natsuki, but at least the music is half-way appropriate, unlike the electronic tinkling of the Fuel replacement. Certainly for those familiar with Hong Kong action cinema the original score will seem fine, incorporating as it does a wide range of source tunes, from bass-driven hip-hip to the slushily romantic to some rather nifty mixing of guitar, electronic and traditional instruments. The Fuel track, on the other hand, is a more generic blend of electronic whines and techno pulses, and at times plays more like the soundtrack to a video game than a film, hence my colleague's comment at the top of the review. Both soundtracks contain sequences where there is music on one track and silence on the other, and there are times when the new track completely changes the feel and even emotional thrust of scenes. For my money the original track is infinitely preferable – the Fuel music, although quite neat in places, is too often inappropriate for the on-screen action, and soon gets both repetitive and a little irritating. In the end, if you're watching the film with the new track you are not seeing the version that Lau and Mak made.

I do, however, salute Premiere Asia for including both scores, and still feel the failure to include the original music track was a serious flaw with the otherwise excellent Ong-Bak DVD.

sound and vision

Contender have built solid reputation for fine transfers on their Premiere Asia and Hong Kong Legends labels, and Initial D: Drift Racer does not let the side down. Colour and contrast are very good, the print is spotless and the detail is crisp without obvious edge enhancement. The biggest challenge for the transfer is the night footage, of which there is a lot – blacks are solid here, but there is a lot of background lighting that leads to misty areas of similar colour, and compression artefacts do make themselves visible from time to time, but not intrusively. On the whole, a very nice job. The framing is 2.35:1 and the picture is anamorphically enhanced.

Three soundtracks are available, with the original score in 5.1 only and the rescored version in 5.1 or DTS. The DTS track is definitely superior, with music and sound effects reproduced more crisply and with slightly better dynamic range. The 5.1 tracks are no slouch, though, with some very good separation and rear speaker work, as well as some thumping good lower frequencies on the music. Strangely, the original track seems to have the edge on the 5.1 rescore.

extra features

Initial D is being released as a 2-disc special edition, and while most of the extra features are on disc 2, there is a notable one on the first disc, a feature whose inclusion, unfortunately, says a lot more about the perceived UK target audience than it does about the film or its production. What we have here is a commentary, not by the filmmakers or the conspicuously absent Bey Logan, but Richie Warren of Fuel and Darren Joyce of Dirty Sanchez, the crap British version of the American idiot show Jackass. I'm normally a huge fan of commentary tracks, for the background information they can provide on the production or even the facts behind the on-screen action, but listening to two mouthy wide boys make dopey comments about the characters and the action, point out the bleeding obvious, order a tofu takeaway, make phone calls to their mates (one of whom, it has to be said, supplies the only useful information on the whole track), and laugh raucously at every single fucking thing they say was the hardest work I've had to do all week. The whole thing really nosedives with stupid impersonations of Japanese modes of speech and the sort of "ching-chang-chong" Chinese mockery that has been used by both Father Ted and The Simpsons to effectively brand characters as ignorant racists.

Things pick up a bit on disc 2, where the features are split into four categories.

Promotional Gallery sports three trailers, kicking off with a UK Theatrical Trailer (1:39), which REALLY sells the film as a live-action Grand Turismo, with Trailer Voice Man replaced by an East End twang, another attempt to target a boy racer demographic. The oxymoronic UK Theatrical TV Spot (0:22) is a shorter version of the same. The Original Theatrical Trailer (2:05) makes a connection with the original manga comics through the graphical presentation of the cast, but is otherwise a montage of fast driving shots.

The Interview Gallery will keep you busy for some time, containing as it does three pages of interviews with cast and crew members, the participants are:

  • Jay Chou (6:42) – sleepy natural racer, Takumi;
  • Anthony Wong (5:16) – Takumi's alcoholic dad, Bunta;
  • Shawn Yue (6:18) – Takumi's initial rival, Takeshi Nakazato;
  • Kenny Bee (6:06) – garage owner, Yuuichi Tachibana;
  • Andrew Lau (19:55) – soft-spoken producer and co-director;
  • Alan Mak (21:46) – lively co-director;
  • Felix Chong (16:11) – screenwriter;
  • Anne Suzuki (7:17) Natsuki, Takumi's girlfriend with a secret;
  • Edison Chen (10:34) – super-cool street racer, Ryousuke Takahashi;
  • Jordan Chan (7:23) cocky, bandana-wearing team racer, Kyouichi Sudou
  • Chapman To (7:31) – Takumi's best friend and hopeless wannabe racer, Itsuki Tachibana

Similar ground is covered in each of the cast interviews – the attraction of the project, the comics, their own characters, working with the cast and directors, playing Japanese and the appeal of drift racing, with a few personal experiences of the filming thrown in. All are conducted in Cantonese with English subtitles, the exceptions being Kenny Bee, whose English is fluent, and Suzuki, who is actually Japanese. Co-director Lau covers the problems of clearing the copyright on the original manga comics, which he describes as "a Japanese national treasure," and the process of adapting them for film and working with the cast, while colleague Mak talks about the more technical aspects of the filming and the racing. Chong, who looks as if the character of Itsuki is based on him, covers the process of adapting the original manga for film and the appeal of drifting to the young.

Under the Hood has 2 entries. Making Initial D: Drift Racer (20:02) is a typical Hong Kong making-of featurette – set to music, furiously busy and covering a lot of ground, with plenty of interviews (some of which have been incorporated from the above section) and behind-the-scenes material, including some driving rehearsals. Press Conference (7:43) is exactly what it claims to be, and is in Chinese (except Anne Suzuki) and subtitled.

Finally we have Fuelled Up, a pointless section featuring Maximum Bass 2 TV Spot (0:41), a godawful TV commercial for the CD of the title, targeted squarely at the FHM crowd, and Drift Kings (7:00), an unstructured bit of home video footage in which the pair responsible for that commentary attend a drift racing meet, do a bit of driving and laugh at loudly everything they do and say.

summary

Not really my cup of sake, but those who like their cars to skid when they take corners will find enough here to keep them happy, and the film does score points for using real drivers rather than the computer generated mayhem of the Hollywood equivalent. The 2-disc set from Premiere Asia showcases the film well, with a strong transfer and a few interesting extra features on disc 2, as well as an endurance test on disc 1 for those hardy souls who made it through Funny Games intact.

Initial D: Drift Racer
Tau man ji D

China / Hong Kong 2005
105 mins
directors
Andrew Lau
Alan Mak
starring
Jay Chou
Anne Suzuki
Edison Chen
Anthony Wong
Shawn Yue
Chapman To
Jordan Chan

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
DTS surround
languages
Cantonese
subtitles .
English
extras
Richie Warren and Dan Joyce commentary
Trailers
Interviews
Making-of featurette
Press conference
Feuled featurette
distributor
Premiere Asia
release date
3 July 2006
review posted
2 July 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews