Ning Hao's CRAZY RACER is not the film I thought it was going to be. Granted, I went in having only read a brief summary, but that summary painted a very specific picture in my mind.
What I was expecting was a purely cycle-centric film, a Chinese version of BREAKING AWAY hopped-up on speed. And based on the opening, it appeared that's what I was going to get. The credits sequence is kinetic, frenetic, and borderline epileptic as we witness Olympic cyclist Geng Hao suffer a crushing defeat in an important race. Then, to add catastrophe to bruised ego, he is thrown out of racing for life after he tests positive for amphetamines- amphetamines found in the male-enhancement product he is conned into shilling. All things considered, Geng Hao takes this relatively well, but his coach becomes so enraged by the expulsion that he suffers a major heart attack.
This is where the film shifts gears, and my hopes of QUICKSILVER meets PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE were dashed. Instead, what we get is a throwback to post PULP FICTION independent cinema circa the late 90's. Remember the glut of similar films that surfaced in the wake of Tarantino's game-changing masterwork? All involving criss-crossing story lines and interconnecting characters? CRAZY RACER would have fit right in. It doesn't have the contrived hipness of some of those films, but does have a similar pace and structure. It also has a sense of humor, something conspicuously absent in many of its predecessors. Combine that with an Eastern sensibility and over a decade's worth of cushion, and the result is more LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS than TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, NM.
But where were we?
Geng Hao, now disgraced and barely making a living, becomes obsessed with forcing reparation from the man who ruined his life. After a failed attempt to get said man to bankroll his coaches funeral, Geng Hao finds himself caught up in an intricate plot involving a group of drug dealing triads, a pair of would-be assassins, and some bumbling Keystone Kops. These strands are then crossed and re-crossed like twine in a game of cat's cradle, creating increasingly more complex degrees of separation. It may sound confusing, but it's not. On the contrary, the script is very focused and meticulously constructed. No sloppy storytelling here.
It is also a very handsome film. According to Variety, the budget came in at just under two million dollars. If that's true, they must pay film crews shit in China, because the production value is that of a movie costing ten times that amount. Visually, it gets high marks across the board, and aside from some iffy CGI in an otherwise ingeniously staged explosion, is technically flawless. Deft camerawork highlights inspired use of location, rounding out an impressive overall package.
And let's not forget lead actor Huang Bo, who went on to take Best Actor in China's Golden Horse awards for his role in COW (also playing this year's fest.) Between the two films, he dominated 2009, proving himself to be one of China's most bankable stars. His charisma shines through, even when playing characters that aren't the most likable.
A huge hit in its native China, I see no reason why CRAZY RACER couldn't find an audience in The States. It is funny, well made, and should have no problem parlaying its American influence into Western acceptance. I definitely see it appealing to open-minded fans of Guy Ritchie and the Coen brothers. If you are not a fan of its influences, you'll probably be more annoyed than impressed. At the very least, aficionados of Asian cinema should approve.
CRAZY RACER screens as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Saturday, June 26th and Friday, July 2nd at Walter Reade Theater.
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