Review of Initial D Drift Racer
Isn`t it always the way? You can wait a lifetime for a movie about drift racing, and two turn up at the same time. Drift racing by the way, is that street racing style familiar to myriads of console gamers, where you keep the power down around corners, letting the rear of the car drift out, walking that fine line between speed and losing control. Or you could give Jeremy Clarkson the keys to a car with more than the recommended daily dose of horsepower and let him loose on a disused airfield. You`ll get my… ahem drift.
This is where I would insert a healthy amount of cynicism regarding Hollywood. Initial D is a property that is ten years old. The Japanese manga was released in 1996, and is still going strong today. Between 1998 and 2000, there was also a long running anime series about the road racers that spawned theatrical features as well. The Fast and The Furious hit our cinema screens in 2001, and its atrociously named sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious in 2003. This year, The Fast and The Furious 3: Tokyo Drift is heading for multiplex screens. Hong Kong cinema`s take on Initial D: Drift Racer was released to cinemas prior to this in 2005. The cynic in me would be making statements about jumping on bandwagons like a rabid jungle cat, were it not for the fact that I have studiously avoided The Fast and Furious franchise, the snob in me labelling it all Hollywood flash and no substance. On the other hand, I`ve never read any of the Initial D manga, and the anime has yet to make its DVD debut in the UK. All I have to go on are the two discs in front of me. Initial D: Drift Racer is the result of cross-cultural fertilisation between Hong Kong and Japan, with a largely Chinese cast, but with the racing scenes shot in Japan. Will it be the best of both worlds or a bastard lovechild?
Takumi Fujiwara is a schoolboy who works in a garage by day, and delivers tofu for his father by night. Years of driving on the winding roads of Mount Akina have made him proficient at drift racing, and he can take his unassuming Toyota AE86 Sprinter Trueno around the roads faster than most muscle cars. His home life isn`t all that special though. After his wife left him Takumi`s father Bunta hit rock bottom and the bottle, and he now takes out his frustrations on his son. He also gave up a lucrative career in racing to run his tofu shop. It`s during a delivery run that Takumi ends up beating Takeshi Nakazato in an impromptu race. Nakazato is part of a street racing community that pits expensive fast cars against each other in illegal races. Soon Takumi has an arena to express his natural talents, and the promise of escaping his mundane life. But as usual there is a catch in all this, in the shape of Takumi`s girlfriend Natsuki.
Initial D gets a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that is quite splendid. As usual, a recent film warrants no print damage or sign of age, and the image gets a clarity and depth of colour that is worthy of the gorgeous cinematography. There is an occasional softness, but it`s more a matter of the source material than the transfer. The film`s editing and directorial style may get a little tiring though. It`s very much an MTV quick-cutting style, with plenty of fast and slow motion that is testament to how `hip` the film is. But the style does suit the story well, and above all the racing action looks absolutely stunning. I think that the reason is because the racing action is real. The only CGI is used for the rare crash and some nifty camera moves, while the cars drifting around the mountain roads are real. The action also gets a hyperreal feel, all clean lines and with an industrial tinge. Oddly, the car registration plates are blurred out for some reason.
You have a choice of three 5.1 soundtracks, all Cantonese. What Contender have done for this release, finding the original soundtrack apparently unsuitable for Western ears, is employ the services of Fuel to write a new score for the film. There is precedence for this, as when the anime was released in the US, the episodes were released in two versions, with the original Japanese version accompanied by a re-edited US version, with a slightly different script and a hip-hop garage soundtrack. Here the change isn`t as contentious with only the music altered, and both versions are presented here in surround glory. Both soundtracks make aggressive use of the surrounds, with the racing action enveloping the viewer. The dialogue is clear throughout, and naturally subtitled in English.
I listened to the DD 5.1 Original Cantonese version, and indeed found the music quite quirky. The racing sequences are accompanied by Hong Kong rap, which sounds quite reminiscent of Milli Vanilli. But there are a wide variety of themes in the film, with appropriate music choices for the comedic and romantic scenes.
Then there are the DD 5.1 and DTS Cantonese (UK Soundtrack) versions. Nicholas Zart of Fuel has rewritten the music to better match the pace of the racing sequences. And the music does what it says on the tin. It`s punchy electronica, reminiscent of 90`s rave music and gives the racing sequences a definite oomph factor beyond the original. However I found it made the film feel like a console game, and the repetitive beats and limited theme do the rest of the film no good at all, with the music sounding out of place for the romance and comedy interludes.
The choice of soundtracks also means that the layer change is noticeable in the original version, coming right in the middle of a music cue. There is no such problem for the retooled version.
You would expect that a Hong Kong film released by Contender would be on the Hong Kong Legends Label, but this one is actually on the Premier Asia brand. I suppose the Japanese location and manga origins of the story warrant the change in label. As usual you get the animated menus on both discs.
Disc 1 sees trailers and information for 5 Hong Kong Legends titles, as well as a weblink for Premier Asia.
The only substantial extra of choice on disc 1 is an audio commentary from Dan Joyce of Dirty Sanchez, and Richie Warren of Fuel. It is one of the worst commentaries I have heard. You would expect them to talk about the film. They rarely do, they don`t know the character names or the actors, they are unaware that they are watching a Hong Kong film in Cantonese and assume it`s a Japanese film. You would think that with Richie Warren of Fuel on the yak track, you would learn about how the film soundtrack was changed. There is a little of this on the commentary, but nowhere near enough. They take the opportunity to take the mick out of the original music though.
What you do get are a couple of petrolheads providing a couple of hours of fanwank about drift racing, driving fast, and looking forward to the impending Gumball Rally in which they will take part. You will also hear them having a laugh, giggling, taking the p***, and ordering takeout. It`s two guys fooling about, and we aren`t in on the joke. I don`t want to hear in-jokes about their mates, about whom I know nothing and care even less. I don`t want to know who owns the bigger car. I want to hear about the film. This is the biggest waste of disc space that I have seen from Contender, and you wonder just what has gone wrong. This isn`t a commentary, it`s an embarrassing joke, and someone in charge needs to be taken aside for a quiet word.
Fortunately, there is a second disc.
You get the usual Promotional Gallery, with three of the film`s trailers available to show you highlights of the film that you have just been watching. The original theatrical trailer joins two UK trailers.
The Interview Gallery offers almost two hours of material. Eight members of the cast are interviewed in separate featurettes averaging 7 minutes. They talk about the film, their characters and the production process. Then there are three more substantial interviews with the film`s directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, as well as with screenwriter Felix Chong. These are more detailed and comprehensive pieces running to about 20 minutes each, and add more about the film and its production. Each man has something different to offer and his comments are interesting to listen to.
Under The Hood has a couple of pieces about the making of the film, the Making Of Initial D: Drift Racer featurette lasts 20 minutes and is your usual behind the scenes look at the film, complete with interviews and film clips. Unfortunately, the interviews are edited from the Interview Gallery, so there is a fair bit of repetition. Press Conference is just that and lasts 8 minutes, looking at the premiere of the film as the cast and crew face the public.
Finally Fuelled Up offers some more disc space to Dan and Richie. 7 minutes of watching fast cars go round a track, interspersed by the inane witterings of the duo. The only link is the sight of the Toyota Trueno with Initial D livery. Add to that an advert for a Maximum Bass 2 CD, the sort of music that you hear thumping from the back of chav bassmobiles throughout the land, and that`s your lot.
I wasn`t expecting much from Initial D, the idea of big egos and bigger cars on screen for ninety-plus minutes just isn`t a draw, and I did once catch 10 minutes of The Fast and The Furious, putting me off any further exploration of the street-racing genre. Initial D reverses that, as it turns out to be an entertaining film, with a less flashy perspective. It takes the best approach for what is essentially a sports movie, albeit an illicit sport, and follows the Rocky archetype. Takumi is the plucky underdog who has to battle in both his personal life and against impossible odds to succeed, and the only thing in his favour is an immense amount of natural talent. He`s so used to driving the twisting roads of Mount Akina that he`s utterly nonchalant about it.
Where the film excels is the racing scenes. They are staged brilliantly, on location and filmed for real. There aren`t any special effects applied to make the cars drift around the hairpins, and watching one car overtake another with bare centimetres to spare is utterly breathtaking. It`s because that it is the racing that matters, and not the eye candy of spectacular accidents that the film actually has a breath of fresh air about it. There are only three crashes in this film, one happens off screen, and two are accomplished with rather forgettable CGI. The story doesn`t dwell on them, and neither does the camera. There are no explosions, and no effects budgets burnt up in smoke because of spectacular wrecks and suicidal stunts. What there is is racing and lots of it.
For a Hong Kong movie, it has a very Japanese feel to it, despite the fact that Anne Suzuki is the only main cast member to actually be Japanese. She`s dubbed into Cantonese for the duration though. I think that there probably has been a conscious attempt to emulate the manga, and the location filming does much in setting the mood. But it`s the reserved performances and toned down characterisations that speak to me of Japan as much as anything. The style doesn`t negatively impact on the film though, there are plenty of lighter comedic moments to be had, and the film can be downright hilarious at times, with a running vomit gag working especially well. Where the film does fall down is the relationship, which gets short shrift here. Adapting a long running series into one two-hour movie means that a lot has to be left out, and here it is the romance between Natsuki and Takumi. There is an initial attempt to set the scene, establishing Natsuki`s character and the domestic problems she faces. But we never really know why she and Takumi fall for each other, and the resolution to their arc is half-hearted and inconclusive. There just isn`t enough of it to make me care, and their moments together serve to slow the film down. Their relationship needed a few extra minutes of screen time to be more adequately developed, or to be dropped altogether, which no doubt would have resulted in a gaggle of irate Initial D fans. As it is, it feels hopelessly up in the air, and makes me wonder if a sequel to the film isn`t in the works.
Well I know which soundtrack I prefer, and with Contender offering the option of both, you`ll be able to make up your own minds. The film is one of the better comic book conversions, and manages to entertain with more than a little heart to the story. The characters are interesting, there is an excellent mix of comedy and racing action, but it`s just the underwritten central relationship that holds the movie back. This DVD release is something of a mixed bag; with glorious presentation coupled with an `everything but the kitchen sink` mentality to the extras. The commentary is heinous enough for me to want to mark it down, but the copious interview footage is almost enough to redeem it. If you`re looking for a film more about the racing than an immolated effects budget, then Initial D may just be the movie for you.