Hong Kong director Jingle Ma follows up “Love You You” and “Mulan” with more cinematic popcorn in the glossy form of “Speed Angels”. In this latest bid for commercial success and mass appeal, Ma takes the high concept premise of putting good looking actresses behind the wheels of fast cars and throws in pretty much every soap opera style twist imaginable, making for a wacky mix of road racing and tears. The film certainly deserves credit for pulling together an impressive trio of leading ladies, headlined by Rene Liu (“Starry Starry Night”), Tang Wei (“Wu Xia”) and Cecilia Cheung (“Legendary Amazons”), as well as a pan-Asian supporting cast that includes pop star and real life racer Jimmy Lin (“If I Were You”), popular Korean television actor Han Jae Suk (“The Great Merchant”), and Kitamura Kazuki (“Kaibutsu-Kun: The Movie”) and Tanaka Chie (“Cape No.7”) from Japan.
The film kicks off with racing heroine Han Bing (Rene Liu) having her heart broken after discovering that her fiancé Asano (Kitamura Kazuki) has been shacking up with her best friend and Speed Angels team mate You Mei (Cecilia Cheung), a betrayal which derails her career and pushes her into alcoholism. Desperately needing money to pay for an operation for her younger sister, Bing agrees to race in the first Asian Heroine Rally for coach Gao Feng (Han Jae Suk), though is not best pleased when he picks feisty but inexperienced cab driver Hong Xiaoyi (Tang Wei) as her partner. Although talented, Xiaoyi has problems of her own, and is placed in the tutelage of trainer Joe (Jimmy Lin) to try and get her good enough to join Bing in taking on Asano’s Sakura team, whose drivers just happen to be her long standing rival Sanoka (Tanaka Chie) and You Mei.
With Jingle Ma at the helm, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that “Speed Angels” is as much a melodrama and relationships film as it is a racing flick. There are certainly a great deal of soap opera shenanigans, which are given every bit as much importance as the car clashes, with pretty much every character being beset with emotional issues and non-life threatening problems, ranging from Bing’s heavy drinking to Xiaoyi’s dead father related turmoil and anxiety at performing in front of a crowd (neatly linked together with childhood trauma flashbacks). The film really does go over the top in this aspect, even pitching in some romantic complications, Xiaoyi falling for Gao Feng, who, shock horror, apparently won’t date racers due to a bad past experience. Thankfully, all of this is handled with such absurd clumsiness by Ma that it makes for a great deal of amusement, and though probably not intentional this does push the film into high camp enjoyment.
Whatever Ma’s intentions, “Speed Angels” is an unpretentious affair, with no illusions whatsoever of being meaningful or high art, and wins points for sticking to the old fashioned Hong Kong style racing film traditions. Entertaining soap silliness and sentimentalism aside, the film also keeps things moving with some reasonable action scenes. Ma delivering on the premise through a number of racing set pieces and training montages. Although the use of real rather than CGI cars would undoubtedly have added a little more impact, the video game style drift battles are lively and flashy, and help to break up the ongoing sob stories. Ma clearly aims for a colourful, at times cartoony feel, though this fits well with the overall feel, and despite a frankly weird over use of bright purple for the cars and costumes, the film generally looks good, with above average production values.
The film’s biggest draw is definitely its all star female cast, and it’s hard not to get a kick from seeing such talented performers slumming it together in material which is clearly beneath them. The three leads are all good value for money, Rene Liu going over the top with the film’s chief angst role, Cecilia Cheung surprisingly ok as her not particularly villainous rival, and Tang Wei getting the chance to act cutesy and daft, spending most of the running time pulling faces and alternating between perky and pouty – making it hard to believe that she’s the same actress who shocked in Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” a few years back. The supporting cast are similarly worthwhile, with veteran Cheng Pei Pei turning up as Xiaoyi’s bizarrely dressed mother, and Kitamura Kazuki on great, ridiculous form as the pantomime fiend of the piece.
All of this adds up to a fair amount of fun, and though slight, “Speed Angels” is a film which lives up to its modest ambitions. Jingle Ma delivers exactly as expected, and fans of the cast, or anyone looking for a silly mix of car racing and melodrama probably won’t feel short changed.
Jingle Ma (director) / Jingle Ma (screenplay)
CAST: Pei-pei Cheng