PEGASUS (2019) review

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Pegasus is the third directorial effort of Han Han, an artist with a great many strings to his bow: best-selling author, influential blogger, prize-winning rally racer, singer-songwriter and of course, hit-making film director. It follows Zhang Chi (Shen Teng), a former glory of the Chinese rally racing world who after taking part in a dangerous and illegal parking lot race against his then-nemesis (William Feng), was stripped of his driver’s license and racing rights. Now, after five years away from racing, spent as a street cook and taking care of his adoptive son Fei (Li Qingyu), Zhang is staging a comeback. But he’s got no driving license, no car, no money, no sponsor, and only the bumbling poet Yuqiang (Yin Zheng) as his teammate. All he’s got is a deep love of car racing, and will to show the newer generation of drivers, including wunderkind Lin Yidong (Johnny Huang Jingyu), that’s he’s still the best.

Pegasus is a rare Chinese sports film: the genre doesn’t seem to click with Chinese audiences, as starry flops like Sherwood Hu’s Amazing (Huang Xiaoming and basketball),  Dante Lam’s To the Fore (Eddie Peng and cycling) and Derek Kwok’s Full Strike (Ekin Cheng and badminton) have tended to prove. But leave it to Han Han, a man gifted with a near-miraculous ability to get the exact pulse of Mainland China, to produce a shining exception, a billion yuan-grossing (and counting) crowd-pleaser. There’s a delightful heroi-comic feel to the whole film: Han’s love of racing (and by extension, driving) is evident and permeates every scene, yet he consistently resists the temptation of self-seriousness and fanfare – two familiar stumbling blocks of sports films.

He also cleverly adopts the Rocky 1 template of not shoehorning a bad guy into the narrative (Johnny Huang’s arch-rival is a cocky yet honorable opponent) and directing all momentum towards a final race/match, rather than going for a repetitive succession of competitions. Yet rally is a less cinegenic form of racing than the more immediately visual circuit racing, so despite car stunt coordinator Norman Law’s always sterling work (there’s a pair of gob-smacking car crashes), the finale doesn’t have much visceral impact or thrills, though it dares to subvert a key expectation of the genre (telling which would be a spoiler).

When it comes to comedy, most of the jokes involve Zhang Chi’s bloated sense of his own – nevertheless exceptional – talent and ambition. Countless gags involve him hyping up an upcoming feat, only for things to go ridiculously awry, or embellishing past events beyond all recognition: his tale of how he eluded the police after his illegal parking lot race is seen first as how he narrates it, then as how it really happened, a hilarious juxtaposition of nimble parkour and appalling clumsiness. Shen Teng is perfection in the lead role, lovable yet pathetic, blustering yet resilient, a winner who’s so very good at losing – or is it the reverse. His relationship to his son, played with unforced charm by Li Qingyu, is thinly-sketched and left aside in the second half of the film, yet one single montage of loving goofiness between father and son is enough to engage. And Yin Zheng makes a much better sidekick here than in Roy Chow’s The Great Detective, a quirky yet reliable image of selflessness. And it’s good to see Winston Chao, William Feng and Gao Huayang (a fellow race car driver of Han’s) in cameos, the latter as a rich sponsor who prefers ‘swim and talk’ to ‘walk and talk’.

Long Story Short: A hilarious and heartfelt love letter to race driving and to those driven by passion, Pegasus is a heroi-comic crowd-pleaser only let down by a slightly underwhelming finale. ***1/2

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