Alongside The Wandering Earth and Crazy Alien, Pegasus (飞驰人生 — lit. “galloping life” or “flying life”) was another major contender during China’s lucrative Spring Festival holiday season this year. With renowned writer Han Han as director, Pegasus tries to be more literary than its box office competition, eschewing lowbrow humor and epic CGI for a racing-themed redemption narrative. Despite this, Pegasus will more likely please motoring enthusiasts than audiences looking for good storytelling; its rally racing scenes feel far superior to its plot construction.
At the center of Pegasus’ redemption narrative is Zhang Chi (Shen Teng of Goodbye Mr. Loser), a former rally car racing champion who just emerged from a five year driving ban for illegal street racing. His life in shambles, Zhang hopes to redeem himself in one last rally competition. However, in the film’s first 60 minutes, Zhang must jump through various hoops like regaining his driving license, finding a car frame, and recruiting sponsors. It’s only in the last 30 minutes that Zhang really gets into his zone during the actual race—and Pegasus truly takes off.
A Comeback Kid Story?
If you judge Pegasus as an exercise in storytelling, it feels innovative in intent but confusing in practice. During most “comeback” stories, the protagonist grapples with character flaws before experiencing a moment of “rebirth.” This paradigm doesn’t exist in Pegasus. The movie starts with Zhang already reborn, with most of his soul searching implied through flashbacks, but never deeply explored. While Zhang must undergo superficial trials like taking a driving test, we see nothing that tests him to the point that he must grow or change as a character.
In fact, almost every challenge that Zhang Chi encounters gets resolved in a pretty efficient way, thanks to the overuse of deus ex machina. As one notable example, when Zhang Chi’s rally car gets wrecked right before the big race, his top opponent Lin Zhendong (played by Huang Jingyu from Operation Red Sea) suddenly steps in and helps him fix it—no argument nor strings attached.
Furthermore, Pegasus doesn’t provide much depth to Zhang Chi’s motivations, beyond the superficial desire to redeem his status as a top rally driver. For one, Zhang doesn’t appear to have much competitive drive against his supposed rival Lin Zhendong; whatever animus he had towards Lin evaporated during his five year ban, and was replaced by embarrassed deference. Though Lin has many characteristics of a villain (he’s a rich fuerdai in contrast to the humble Zhang Chi), he repeatedly demonstrates selfless benevolence towards Zhang—which makes him even less of a foil, and really hard to hate.
Zhang Chi also has a young adopted son, which could’ve been another easy source of motivation and character conflict. Yet, Pegasus doesn’t bite on this opportunity either. In many movies, a flawed parent character undergoes epic struggles to win their child’s approval—but in Pegasus, Zhang always has his young son’s approval, and the two have a healthy, loving, and frankly boring relationship.
Or Another Top Gear China Special?
However, if you put narrative construction aside and judge Pegasus purely as a piece of motoring entertainment, it starts demonstrating a lot more value. The movie feels like a Sinified and slightly more novelistic movie spinoff of the British motoring show Top Gear, famed for its comedic and testosterone-tinged takes on cars and racing.
The trials that Zhang Chi undergoes before embarking on the rally competition evoke the “challenges” that Top Gear’s presenters experience. For example, Zhang and his co-driver put on a karaoke and pole dancing routine in order to raise money from a gangster—a random bout of gender-bending that recalls how Top Gear presenters once dressed up in burqas while driving across Syria.
Cinematography is another area where Pegasus shines (especially during its last 30 minutes), and draws parallels with Top Gear. First, just as Top Gear often features challenges in gorgeous locations like the Italian Alps, Han Han chose to set Pegasus’ final race in the Bayanbulak Grassland National Nature Reserve—a place so beautiful that China’s state broadcaster wrote an English-language article describing it as “paradise.” Filming across the dangerous mountain switchbacks, pristine lakes, and sprawling plains of Bayanbulak was undoubtedly a major logistical and technical challenge; Pegasus deserves credit for pulling off a visually stunning final product at this remote location.
Given drivers in rally races start at different times and don’t need to overtake each other, I was also initially a bit skeptical that Pegasus could make Zhang’s final race entertaining, even with the epically beautiful location. However, by drawing upon tried and true techniques seen in shows like Top Gear, Pegasus makes that race one of the most captivating motoring moments in cinematic history. The film makes ample use of slow motion, multiple split screens, and sports broadcaster-style narration to create an altogether suspenseful and engaging ambience that’ll suit any motoring enthusiast’s fancy.
Much Ado About Motorsport
In a way, Pegasus’ strengths and weaknesses mirror director Han Han’s shifting life priorities. After finding success as the literary voice of China’s post-80’s youth, he pivoted away from writing to become a professional rally car driver, claiming that he’d “already said many of the things he’d needed to say” through writing.
As such, it seems like Han Han paid far more attention to the parts of making Pegasus that related to cars than the parts that related to writing. According to Chinese media, Han Han personally tested every single car used in Pegasus, and also trained lead actor Shen Teng to drive properly. Han Han also contributed one of his own cars to Pegasus, and weaves numerous subtle references to his racing idols (ex. Xu Lang) and personal experiences (ex. hitting a tree) into the film.
Especially when compared with Han Han’s previous two films The Continent and Duckweed (one of 2017’s best Chinese movies), Pegasus feels like the motoring passion project he always wanted to make, but had to gradually build up towards. The Continent teases the motoring concept by depicting a road trip, Duckweed familiarizes audiences with a rally car driver, and then Pegasus goes full speed ahead into motorsport—rational narrative structures be damned.
Thus, while Pegasus doesn’t necessarily excel at storytelling, it does have a significant amount of genre appeal. Audiences who enjoy motoring shows like Top Gear or The Grand Tour will find the film familiar and entertaining. At the same time, those who follow China’s entertainment industry should also take note. By expanding into the formerly Western-dominated motoring genre and showcasing significant expertise in filmmaking techniques, Pegasus is a sign of more captivating Chinese movies to come.
Pegasus (Chinese: 飞驰人生)—China. Directed by Han Han. Running time 1hr 38min. First released February 2019. Starring Shen Teng, Huang Jingyu, and Zheng Yin.
Pegasus is currently screening across select North American and British theaters.