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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Tau Man Ji D: Initial D (2005) review: A glorified Star vehicle with badly punctured tires

Overall verdict: 5/10

The Good: The chinese pop soundtrack, the professional acting by most of the cast, timeless underdog tale in new clothing.

The Bad: Lackluster racing scenes, "tacked on" romantic sub-plot, many changes from the original manga, low budget look.

Current Availability Status: on discount priced DVD in most retail stores.

Note: Also known as Initial D (eng) or Tou Wen Ji D (chi)


With a cast of A list actors, a veteran director and the promise of a blockbuster hit that would satisfy all, Tau Man Ji D(initial D) was Hong Kong's first big foray into the dangerous world of live action movie adaptations based on japanese manga/anime. Alas, it only proved that even veteran Hong Kong directors cannot make a good anime adaptation. Fans were appalled by all the changes made to the personalities of many of the main characters. Changes like that are actually fine if they are executed with finesse, but in Tau Man Ji D's case, they did not. In the end, the only things in common with the original source material is the names of the characters and the concept of "drifting". Having alienated the long time fans, at least the production team would do well to deliver a solid movie experience that a casual movie goer can enjoy, right?

Tau Man Ji D focuses on the story of young Takumi(a supposedly japanese teenager played by the obviously Taiwanese Jay chou speaking Hong Kong Cantonese), a tofu delivery boy who honed his drifting skills delivering for his father in the Akina mountain roads. He drives the Toyota AE86 like a pro and soon attracts the attention of local street race gangs who come to challenge Takumi to races on the treacherous downhill roads. Along the way, he has to deal with his budding romance with his girlfriend Natsuki and take on the notorious "Emperor team". Aside from the aforementioned changes in the personalities of many characters, the premise is the same as the manga. However the whole setting is a very confused one. Though obviously set in japan, everyone speaks in fluent Cantonese. It would have been a lot more believable to either set the story in hong kong or at least dub over the actors with a Japanese voice track.

Even as a stand-alone story, barring any comparisons to the original manga and anime, Tau Man Ji D would still be a mediocre film. The main narrative is easy enough to follow but not exactly the most original of plots; typical underdog sports story with local boy going from zero to hero. Cue mandatory convenient romantic subplot, which sadly feels forced thanks to Jay Chou's flat-tire acting and a very cheesy script. There is fair share of comic relief moments but they come across as very awkward and horribly misplaced. Most of the other actors play their roles with utmost professionalism. Too bad The script itself has quite a bit of uncomfortable lines that read more like sentences in an essay than actual conversation dialog.

"D" in the film's title stands for "drift", a kind of extreme turn technique employed by race car drivers. Being part of title itself, one would expect the drift races to at least look good. The racing itself is fine and pretty well choreographed but the camera-work and editing is painful to watch. It lacks the kinetic sense of energy that made other racing films like Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift such a thrill. Most racing scenes in Tau Man Ji D involve documentary-style wide tracking shots of the cars zooming by or a static first person perspective shot that looks like it was sped up in post production to make the cars look like they are moving faster than they really are. Cheesy cartoony Freeze frames and choppily edited slow motion all give this film the look of a cheap B movie. They even tried to use CGI for one very obvious crash scene, but the crappy computer generated car looked very fake against the photo-realistic background.

Tau Man Ji D's possible success in Asia was probably due to the cast and Jay Chou rather than the actual narrative elements of the film itself. Banking on Chou's fame as a singer, this movie attracted not just the bulk of young Chinese music fans who were particularly enthusiastic to see their idol's big screen debut. A very clever though underhanded marketing strategy that indirectly relegates Tau Man Ji D to a status no better than a star vehicle for the Taiwanese pop idol. Well this star vehicle does not fire on all cylinders. It chugs its way from start to finish on flat tires, empty-tank scripting and greasy directing. Aside from Jay Chou fans, followers of the manga and lovers of good racing movies would do well to rev up their engines and leave Tau Man Ji D behind in the dust.

*****************************Review End******************

Go For it: if you like handsome chinese actors, a simple story to pass the time or if you are already an avid fan of Hong Kong Cinema and directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak
Avoid it: if you loved the characters from the manga, the adrenaline pumping races of the video games and the more natural character interplay of the anime.

Entertainment: C+
Story: B
Acting: B
Characters: C-
Replay value: C
"Brains": C-

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