Taiwanese pop-star Jay Chou makes his major film debut in the adaptation of Shuichi Shigeno’s comic “Initial D” (Andrew Lau and Alan Mak). As a member of now two Asian entertainment industries—Taiwan and Hong Kong—that demand their idols star in films and release records, Jay has a lot riding on his performance (no pun intended). He plays Takumi Fujiwara, a quiet, obedient student who delivers tofu for his dad’s restaurant and works at the Eneos gas station run by his friend Itsuki’s (Chapman To) father Yuuichi Tachibana (Kenny Bee). An amateur car racer and practitioner of “drifting”—driving sideways down a road—, he seems relatively content with his daily chores. An encounter with Takeshi Nakazato (Shawn Yue) of the Night Kids racing gang, however, awakens Takumi’s competitive desire. What begins as a hobby turns into a symbol of status.
In contrast to the generic racing film, where love interests are distractions or get caught up in the middle of opposing gangs, Natsuki (Anne Suzuki), a classmate that has a serious crush on Takumi, merely represents one part of Takumi’s life. Furthermore, as depicted in the film, taking care of his alcoholic father (Anthony Wong), who was once a Japanese racing champion, and quarreling with Itsuki are also aspects of Takumi’s life. “Initial D” involves but doesn’t exclusively focus on racing. As a matter of fact, “Initial D” is an anti-car racing film. It’s not about thrills; it’s about how to perfect the art of drifting, philosophy, and how to transcend the human condition.
Made as a collaborative effort with Japanese talents and crew workers, “Initial D” is about Japanese characters, is set in Japan, but its cast is primarily comprised of Chinese actors—are you scratching your head in confusion yet? However disconcerting it is to watch a film about Japanese people and the only available language tracks are Mandarin and Cantonese, there is another issue that occupies your mind. Shawn Yue, Edison Chen (who plays car expert Ryosuke), Jordan Chan (who portrays a professional racer that taunts Takumi into racing), and Chapman To are hardly novices to acting. Anthony Wong, of course, is an old pro. Jay Chou, on the other hand, only has movie-music videos and a cameo on his filmmography. It’s difficult to tell if he should stick to singing or if he could continue to pursue film roles. As a singer-songwriter, Jay is introverted without being broody, deep and a bit inarticulate. The only way to know if his enervated demeanor in “Initial D” is a sign of uninspired acting skills or not is if you’ve read the comic and would therefore know if Jay has effectively brought out Takumi’s personality.
Visually speaking, freeze frames and extremely letter-boxed screens emulate the pages of a manga; split screens magnify intensity of racing scenes. The special effects/graphics are neat, and Anthony Wong and Chapman To offer up excellent comedic performances, but I was bored for the majority of the film. Either I subjectively can’t appreciate the mellow drama and the father-son relationship or I just prefer to watch racing films more along the lines of “The Legend of Speed” (Andrew Lau, 1999).