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Initial D
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Top row. from left to right: Jay Chou, Edison Chen, and Anthony Wong.
Bottom row, from left to right: Shawn Yue, Anne Suzuki, and Jordan Chan.
Chinese: 頭文字 D
Year: 2005
Director: Andrew Lau Wai-Keung, Alan Mak Siu-Fai
Producer: Andrew Lau Wai-Keung
Writer: Felix Chong Man-Keung, Shuichi Shigeno (original comic)
Cast: Jay Chou, Edison Chen, Anne Suzuki, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Chapman To Man-Chat, Shawn Yue, Jordan Chan Siu-Chun, Kenny Bee, Liu Genghong, Chie Tanaka, Tsuyoshi Abe
The Skinny: It meets expectations...provided yours aren't screamingly high. Initial D is a solid, entertaining, though unspectacular manga adaptation. Still, fans should go home happy, and this is certainly one impressive production. Initial D won't be 2005's Kung Fu Hustle, but for summer popcorn fluff, it's in a class of its own.
by Kozo:

Is there a more anticipated Hong Kong film in 2005 than Initial D? Ages in the making, this manga-to-screen adaptation is a hype juggernaut that virtually guarantees overblown expectations from a paying audience. Not only is it based on a beloved anime/manga series with fans all over the globe, but it's also the starring film debut of superstar singer Jay Chou, and it's directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, two guys who made some dinky film series called Infernal Affairs. And besides, it arrives in the midst of Hong Kong's worst year for cinema, both in number of releases and actual film quality. Given the above, Initial D is more than a movie, it's a potential savior. If you're crossing your fingers, you're not alone.

Jay Chou is Takumi Fujiwara, a high school student in Japan whose days are spent working at a gas station and mumbling in a dopey manner. He also quietly lusts after supreme jailbait classmate Natsuki (Anne Suzuki), and hangs with blowhard pal Itsuki (Chapman To, playing 15 years younger than his actual age). Takumi doesn't look like a special guy, but he does have a hidden talent: street racing, and not just any street racing. Takumi uses an old Toyota Trueno AE86 and clocks insane times on the Mt. Akina downhill, all by applying the technique of "drifting," i.e. skidding around corners without losing much speed in the process (NOTE: This is a layman's explanation. We apologize in advance to drifting masters everywhere.). However, Takumi does not own the mountain with his racing prowess; instead, he uses his insane drifting skills to get home as soon as possible after delivering tofu for his dad Bunta (Anthony Wong). If Takumi smokes anyone on the way home, it's just a coincidence.

That exact coincidence leads to the eventual outing of Mt. Akina's hidden racing god. Takeshi Nakazato (Shawn Yue), leader of the Night Kids racing team, shows up at Takumi's workplace looking to take on the "Akina Racing God," but unfortunately Itsuki claims the title, and subsequently gets embarrassed on Mt. Akina's slopes. But after Nakazato gets creamed by a returning-from-delivery Takumi, he re-ups his challenge at the gas station...except nobody seems to know who beat Nakazato. Takumi's too busy acting morose and fantasizing about a potential beach date with Natsuki to take up the challenge. But Yuuichi (Kenny Bee), Itsuki's dad and Takumi's boss at the gas station, knows that it was Takumi behind the wheel, and pressures Bunta into getting his son to race. Bunta offers to lend Takumi the car for his date, as long as Takumi beats Nakazato in his first "official" street race. Presto, an illegal racing god is born, which leads to new challengers, including Ryosuke Takahashi (Edison Chen), the leader of the Red Suns racing team, and Kyoichi Sudo (Jordan Chan), an actual racing professional who takes on Takumi to avenge a buddy. Meanwhile, Takumi ponders his future in a quiet, morose manner, and the audience waits for the next CG-assisted car race.

The appeal of the Initial D manga/anime isn't hard to figure out. The copious car detail is cool to amateur car tuners and enthusiasts, but the story itself has a killer concept. Takumi's status as an accidental racing god is an exceptionally cool hook, and creator Shuichi Shigeno's initial stories of how Takumi discovers his own racing prowess - and how he soundly beats all the serious racers in the vicinity - makes for fun and exhilarating storytelling for anyone who likes an underdog story. Takumi is an accidental genius: a racing god created by years of incidental practice, and the filmmakers of the live-action Initial D movie wisely spend plenty of time detailing Takumi's entertaining origins. Screenwriter Felix Chong (also of Infernal Affairs) gives us plenty of buildup, establishing all the hows and whys before Takumi ever begins racing. The effect is two-fold: not only does the buildup add extra oomph to Takumi's ultimate mastery of the downhill, but it also creates the semblance of actual storytelling. And as anyone who's seen a bunch of Hong Kong movies will tell you, actual storytelling is pretty damn rare.

Initial D is a very faithful adaptation of the original source material, which is great because it retains the original material's inherent strengths, while hopefully pleasing core fans. Unfortunately, the weaknesses of the original manga get ported over too. Despite the cool origins for Takumi, he's not a very compelling character, and his taciturn ways are as frustrating as they are supposedly cool. Jay Chou handles the part decently, especially since it's a thankless role that only requires an actor to act dopey, mopey, and borderline comatose for a good portion of the film. Chou can handle dopey, mopey, and comatose well, and the limitations of the part even help disguise Chou's stilted Cantonese. What Chou doesn't seem to be able to convey is the character's anger, though the filmmakers don't spend much time there either. Other than the more obvious emoting (Chapman To overacts amusingly, but it's still overacting), the characters are upstaged by the stylish direction from Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, which bleeds MTV-type sensibilities. If the filmmakers need an emotion, they rarely turn to the actors, and instead pour on the camera tricks and obvious music. It's all very cool and even edgy, but there isn't a lot of meat behind the freeze-frames, stutter-shots, and montages set to even more Jay Chou music. This is entertaining, but empty stuff.

Also problematic is the actual racing in Initial D, which is known for being incredibly cerebral, i.e. it involves more than one guy just being faster than another. In the manga/anime, actual understanding of the races is gleamed via running commentary, voice-over, and explanations by racing experts who are smoking about 30 miles from where the race is actually taking place. Such storytelling can stretch a 10 minute race out for 2-3 anime episodes, or even a whole volume of manga. The filmmakers excise much of this, which is great for the film's pacing and visuals, but it also diminishes some of the actual impact of the races. In the film, the clever tricks that Takumi sometimes uses to win are made secondary to the simple fact that he's supposed to win, which doesn't prove as compelling as what occurs in the manga/anime.

Granted, this is a media difference; manga and anime have the luxury of time to tell their stories, while a live-action movie has to come in under 2 hours. This is actually a problem shared by most racing movies, as the big things that decide races - split-second decisions, detailed strategy, and technical car stuff that Average Joe Moviegoer would never understand - largely get ignored in favor of blaring music, quick cars, and actors grinning like idiots. Initial D manages to squeeze in some of the cerebral stuff next to shots of cars whizzing by, but even then the result is only perfunctory in its excitement. The races in Initial D aren't truly exhilarating, though your mileage could vary. If shots of cars drifting around corners gets you off, than Initial D is for you. Guaranteed.

The faithful approach taken by the filmmakers eventually takes its toll, too. After a period of time, the film seems less concerned with telling a good story than clicking off some imaginary checklist of what happened in the manga. This is especially true with the character of Natsuki, whose story is truncated in a disturbingly arbitrary manner. Anne Suzuki gives Natsuki a youthful charm, but her character is ultimately hung out to dry, a fact that's only okay because it happened in the anime and manga, too. Again, that's cool for fans, but the layman unfamiliar with the complete story arcs to these characters could find Initial D to be a cold experience.

However, the film has other positives which help out. The cast largely works; Anthony Wong and Kenny Bee are charismatic old pros who bring plenty of fun to their parts, though Wong's take on Bunta Fujiwara errs a bit on the cartoony side. Third-billed Edison Chen is barely developed, which is a shame as his character is integral to the manga and anime. Still, Chen brings some charisma to his role, while Shawn Yue and Jordan Chan do more with their slight screentime than most actors probably could. Chapman To does the impossible: he makes you believe that he's playing a high school kid. And the production is exceptionally impressive. For big-budget summer fare, Initial D fits the bill quite nicely. It doesn't challenge or truly involve, but it's 110 minutes of easily digestible youth drama and slick racing fun. Undemanding audiences - and even those with some inkling of quality cinema - will likely be pleased.

Still, Initial D is so loaded with expectations that it could still disappoint a great many. Despite the big-budget flash, the film doesn't amaze and astound - and those expecting big things from Messrs. Lau and Mak are sure to be unhappy, because Initial D does nothing to approach the watershed in Hong Kong commercial cinema that was the Infernal Affairs films. If anything, Initial D is closer to The Storm Riders (a well-mounted commercial spectacle) than Infernal Affairs (a brilliantly conceived and challenging commercial film). It's not even Kung Fu Hustle, as that film managed to surprise and even charm between egregious displays of its big budget muscles. Initial D possesses neither charm nor surprise, though it does manage to be better constructed than 90% of what comes out of Hong Kong these days. And its subject matter and cast will probably not draw older viewers, meaning Initial D might not destroy the bank like some people might expect it to. So, it may not be a savior. But for an engaging, entertaining time at the movies, Initial D meets expectations...provided you didn't set yours way too high. (Kozo 2005)

Notes: Initial D clocks in at 1 hour and 48 minutes, though a longer cut is rumored.
Tsui Hark was originally set to direct Initial D, but there were "creative differences." After he left, Andrew Lau and Alan Mak signed on instead.
For a long period of time, Edison Chen was slated to play Takumi Fujiwara, and Andy Lau was even rumored to be up for the role of Bunta.
A number of Toyota Trueno AE86 cars were used during production, at least one of which was personally wrecked by Jay Chou.
In four days, Initial D matched the total gross of 2005's top-selling Hong Kong film. That film: Himalaya Singh.
Awards: 25th Hong Kong Film Awards
• Winner - Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang)
• Winner - Best New Artist (Jay Chou)
• Winner - Best Sound Design (Kinson Tsang King-Cheung)
• Winner - Best Visual Effects (Victor Wong, Eddy Wong, Bryan Cheung)
Nomination - Best Picture
• Nomination - Best Director (Andrew Lau Wai-Keung, Alan Mak Siu-Fai)
• Nomination - Best Editing (Wong Hoi)
• Nomination - Best Original Score (Chan Kwong-Wing)
• Nomination - Best Original Song ("Drifting", performed by Jay Chou)
42nd Golden Horse Awards
• Winner - Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang)
• Winner - Best New Performer (Jay Chou)
• Nomination - Best Adapted Screenplay (Felix Chong Man-Keung)
• Nomination - Best Original Song ("Drifting", performed by Jay Chou)
• Nomination - Best Visual Effects (Victor Wong, Eddy Wong, Bryan Cheung)
• Nomination - Best Sound Effects (Kinson Tsang King-Cheung)
12th Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards
Recommended Film
DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Media Asia
2-Disc Special Edition
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese subtitles
Trailers, TV Spots, Featurettes, Outtakes, Photo Gallery, Deleted Scenes
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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images courtesy of Media Asia Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen