Sunday, February 25, 2024

Pegasus x2

Pegasus 2 appears to be one of the two big Chinese hits for Lunar New Year, heading into its third weekend at Boston Common, after pretty decent crowds during weekend #2. I don't recall how well the first did back in 2019, when it was also a LNY release. Not quite so well, I don't think - it seems to have come and gone before I got to the theater to see it - but Boston is not Beijing, and it wouldn't be the first movie to have found enough of an audience at home (during the pandemic) to trigger a bigger sequel.

That it happens strikes me as a bit odd, as I mention below; these are capably-enough made movies, so when I'm tempted to say that as a director, Han Han makes a good racecar driver, it's not so much a question of technical competence as priorities; he's really about the how of a lot of things, including putting together a team and car behind the scenes, without making it terribly dramatic. Which is not necessarily a bad thing - I'm kind of fond of movies where people do things that they are good at - but sometimes he seems to be familiar enough with the everything that he doesn't go into detail where that could be useful, or finding ways to make this a part of the drama.

But, then again, I'm not Chinese, and I wouldn't be terribly surprised if some of the business situations and acceptance of certain social structures are closer to the default there than they would be here. It's obviously a success at the box office! It just seems strange to me that a lot of these movies seem smoothed out in the very places a Western filmmaker would probably heighten tension.

Fei chi ren sheng (Pegasus)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 February 2024 in Jay's Living Room (catch-up, Prime Video HD stream)
Available to stream/rent/purcase on Prime and elsewhere elsewhere

I did a "watch the first before the sequel" thing here, and it clearly didn't result in me skipping Pegasus 2, but I wound up watching that as much out of curiosity about how one does a sequel or maybe makes the second go at something a little better with a little more money and practice. Pegasus isn't a bad movie, really, but it's very slight, always moving straight to the next step when it could dig in a little deeper.

Zhang Chi (Shen Teng) knew he wanted to race ever since he was a kid, and grew up to be a fantastic rally car driver, winning the Bayanbulak Rally a number of times, but in 2014, he got involved in a spectacularly ill-advised street race and lost his license to drive for five years. His suspension over, he intends to show foster son Fei (Li Qingyu) that he was, indeed, the best. Times have changed, though - Bayanbulak is now dominated by a team led by rich kid Lin Zhendong (Johnny Huang Jingyu), longtime navigator Sun Yuqiang (Yin Zheng) has been working in a theme park, and none of his old sponsors want to come near him. If he's to return to Bayanbulak, he's going to have to start completely from scratch.

While I try not to call productions that involved hundreds of people over months the result of laziness, there's a real sense that writer/director Han Han did not exactly put max effort into certain parts of this. Throughout the film, problems are raised and quickly disposed of or ignored, there's no sense of any sort of conflict or friction between characters (Zhang Chi hasn't been in jail, so why hasn't he been talking to Yuqiang? Is there supposed to be any sort of rivalry between him and Zhendong?), and to the extent that it's a comedy, the jokes aren't really much beyond "one male character has long hair". It's a movie made almost entirely out of the capable pieces that fill in the little gaps between the bits of a better movie where something important happens or a character's actions are revealing rather than those bits themselves.

Perhaps there's some intent to say something about Zhang Chi's singular focus, but Han han doesn't really give the audience much reason to consider that before the finale; but there's really no foreshadowing that, nor anything in Shen Teng's performance to suggest that there's something closer to obsession than enthusiasm here. Maybe you don't always see something like that, but if so, it's not an interesting sort of realism.

It's also a movie about rally-car racing that not only contains very little racing, but doesn't do a whole lot to demonstrate what makes the sport exciting or dramatic. The film is a bit hampered a bit by the way that this particular sort of race works: All the racers going at once but deliberately separated, so there's little chance for head-to-head action or direct comparisons of how their different approaches reflect their characters. If there were any sort of stakes or conflict between disgraced racer making a comeback and the wealthy young frontrunner, and there's really not that much, you're deliberately pushed a step back. The film is built to show you the course - which is impressively dangerous, full of switchbacks, changes of altitude, and dirt roads of variable traction - and closeups of a driver executing one piece, but not the competition.

All in all, it feels like a J.J. Abrams movie - Han Han knows all the pieces that work, and how to smoothly transition from one to another, but not really how to build an actual movie out of those pieces that earns a reaction rather than getting a sort of response from recognizing the technique and shape of the film.

Fei chi ren sheng 2 (Pegasus 2)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2024 in AMC Boston Common #4 (first-run, DCP)

There are lots of different sorts of sequels, and Pegasus 2 has a go at several: There's the straight "do it again" type, the "coping with the fallout from the last" type, the "hero becomes mentor" type. As with the first, though, director Han Han Is less focused on drama than on how you get to and compete in a race. And as was the case the first time around, that's more or less fine, although it keeps the film from being as thrilling as it could be.

Despite the seemingly tragic finale to the first, Zhang Chi (Shen Teng) is still alive, rescued from the car that flew off the cliff and into the sea after passing the finish line, but it messed up his right hand and left leg, and pieces being missing from the recovered wreckage meant that his winning time could not be certified. Five years later, he, navigator Sun Yuqiang (Yin Zheng), and mechanic Ji Xing (Zhang Benyu) are running a driving school and garage, facing eviction when Xin Di (Jia Bing), the director of a mobility-scooter factory looking to expand into full-sized electric vehicles, approaches the group about sponsoring a rally team for the forthcoming final Bayanbulak Rally (climate change is rendering the course too dangerous). He doesn't really have the funds for it, but does have a natural driver in Li Xiaohai (Fan Chengcheng). They don't stand much chance of beating the hybrid-powered Lightlife team, run by their former manager Ye (Wei Xiang), but just placing would be the boost both businesses need.

I didn't know Han Han was a former driver before setting the first Pegasus, but looking at the two movies together, it tracks. The movies don't necessarily get lost in minutia, but they've got a sort of familiarity with the material that isn't distancing but is occasionally a bit dry. It also sometimes seems the case that he doesn't see a deeper meaning in all of this as opposed to this just being the protagonist's sport, what he does because it's fun and he loves nothing better - not all athletes see poetry in their endeavor. There's something approaching a theme in the end, about running your car/body into ruin over the course of the race or life, but it's not that deep. It's not quite just a race, but it's not that much more.

Indeed, the film is oddly slimmed down from last time, not much more than these guys doing things with cars. Chang Chi's foster son has apparently been reclaimed by his birth parents, Yuqiang's wife isn't even mentioned, and Ye becomes a villain because, I dunno, the actor was available and the movie needed a villain (kind of a shame, because there could be something interesting in examining how desire to win has blotted out his easygoing nature from the first movie, or how the others apparently have nothing but racing left, but Han doesn't give that much time). The father-son relationship between Xiaohai and Xin gets one or two scenes, and they basically work, even if they're not enough to hang the movie on. There are also fewer feints in the direction of comedy. I'm not sure whether to appreciate the focus on what they can do well or wish it was more ambitious.

The racing is pretty darn good, though. It's the same legendary course as the previous movie, but it kind of doesn't matter, given how this sort of race works and there's no particular symbolism other to the course's nature other than that being the legendary course that has captured the imagination of Chinese racers for decades, not even to consider how this is the end of an era. Han does make it a bit more obviously exciting this go-round, though - there is more direct competition between the racers, as well as confrontations between Ye and Ji Xing off the track, and a sudden hailstorm that makes Zhang Chi and Sun Yuqiang have to work more closely than they ever have before

To a certain extent, these movies are what they are, and execute well enough, and this one is a bit of an improvement. They're odd ducks as big event movies, at least as such things are often built in Hollywood with a big emotional story that can be mapped to the final event, but this one works more often than not.

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