Movie Review: Nezha (叱咤/風雲)

With the continued success of the FAST & FURIOUS franchise, it’s not surprising that other filmmakers might want to try their hand at building their own racing-centric money maker. From Taiwan comes the film NEZHA, which is known in other markets as CHI ZHA FENG YUN. In Chinese folk mythology, Nezha is regarded as the god of professional drivers. As for the other name, it translates to “Brilliant Wind Cloud”. Fans of the 2005 film INITIAL D will no doubt see a few similarities, which shouldn’t be too surprising as NEZHA is produced by INITIAL D star, Jay Chou/周杰伦.

NEZHA opens with the start of the racing season in Taiwan and thanks to a crazy amount of exposition we learn that the once-revered Lions racing team is now in big trouble both on and off the track. Its lead driver, Jeffrey “King” Li Yifei (dime store Aaron Kwok, actor-singer Van Fan/范逸臣), has seen better racing days but he refuses to retire. With the team’s secondary driver jumping teams at the end of the last season, the Lions hired Lili Lu (Chou’s wife, actress-model Hannah Quinlivan/昆凌), the league’s first-ever female driver. A former go-kart champion, Lili has no experience at this level and she doesn’t understand the importance of teamwork, which only makes the Lions’ situation more dire. After a disastrous first race, team leader Ah Shen (Alan Ko/柯有伦) decides to shake things up and, at Lili’s suggestion, he hires Jack Tu (Tsao Yu-ning/曹佑宁), Taiwan’s #1 racing gamer and former high school classmate of Lili’s. Jack has even less experience at this level than Lili but she agrees to train him up in time for their next race. Jack eventually proves to be a racing prodigy but it comes at a cost — to Lili, to Jeffrey, to Ah Shen, to the Lions and even to himself. Meanwhile, waiting for any opportunity to exploit the Lions’ weaknesses is “Jet” Song Jie (Vince Kao Ying-Hsuan/高英轩) from the rival Wolves racing team who has his own axe to grind against the Lions.

Writer-director Jem Chen Yi-xian/陳奕先 and his co-writer Jay Chern/陳鈺杰 are embarrassingly out of their depth with this film. After REMINISCENCE, I didn’t think I could care less for a bunch of characters but I was wrong. NEZHA’s premise of a gamer becoming an overnight racing sensation is way beyond flimsy. Added to that are the insanely ridiculous team names that include Snakes, Elephants and, believe it or not, Bunnies. This is supposed to be F1 level racing and I think those teams are called Mercedes, Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull. Now I get that Chen and Chern can’t use those names without their permission and certainly Ferrari and the like would never lend their names to a film that doesn’t even use F1 cars. That being the case, then don’t call it F1! And really, if you owned a racing team, would you want to call it Elephants or Bunnies? Further, if you owned an F1 racing team, would you really let inexperienced drivers behind the wheels of your very expensive performance cars? Chen and Chern also don’t seem to understand the concept of employment contracts — who issues them, what they look like and how they are enforced. Or maybe they think their audience is clueless about them.

Script problems aside, who knew that car racing could be so boring to watch? It’s very clear that these cars are driving slowly and Chen’s inept direction and editing can’t fool anyone into thinking otherwise. Also, professional car racing is not a contact sport. If a driver intentionally hits another car, I would venture to guess that they would lose their racing license and the team would be suspended for the rest of the season. That, though, doesn’t happen here. Even more ridiculous, F1 drivers regularly hit speeds in excess of 150 mph. If one car hits another at that speed, one or both of them will go airborne. That doesn’t happen here either.

Gear down your expectations and you might just enjoy NEZHA. In reality, though, this film should be disqualified. Unfortunately, it looks like a sequel is being planned. Certainly, the end of the film leaves a number of plot developments revved up and waiting for the green flag to come down.

NEZHA opens in Hong Kong on Thursday (August 26th).

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