Han Han’s racing film ‘Pegasus’ is the best Chinese movie of 2019 (so far)

Society & Culture

For his third outing as a director, Han Han returns to his roots as a former race car driver to sculpt a fun race-car comedy.


I’m six months late, but I’ve finally caught up with all the big Lunar New Year movies of 2019. Looking at the selections this season, I don’t think moviegoers outside of China missed much. My most anticipated release, The Wandering Earth 流浪地球, only proved that China could make dumb blockbusters as well as Hollywood, while Stephen Chow’s The New King of Comedy 新喜剧之王 turned out to be one of the most pointless remakes in recent memory. The competition wasn’t much, but the race car-themed Pegasus 飞驰人生 — available to stream on Netflix — is easily the winner of the season.

For his third outing as a director, renaissance man Han Han 韩寒 draws on his own background as a race car driver. Pegasus sees actor Shen Teng 沈腾 playing Zhang Chi, a washed-up driver who’s just come out of a five-year suspension from racing. Now that Zhang is free to race again, he’s eager to compete in the Bayanbulak Rally, an elite competition across a beautiful (and dangerously curvy) Xinjiang mountain range.

Zhang’s life has changed a lot since he was banished from the racetrack. He paid his bills selling fried rice on the street, and he raised his son Fei all by himself. In his exile, Zhang’s became estranged from the world he used to know and love. His new rivals, like the national champion Lin Zhengdong, are faster and richer than Zhang ever was. With little more than a month to spare, Zhang’s going to need a car, team, and sponsor to get back into the game.

Before doing any of that, Zhang reconnects with Sun Yuqiang, a long-haired slacker who doubled as his co-pilot. Sun spends his days dressed as a dinosaur for a theme park, so he’s more than happy to get back to racing with his old buddy. As the two friends prepare for the race, they enroll Zhang in driver’s training, steal their former car, and appear on a reality show to beg for money. Every time something goes right for the pair, they seem to suffer a misstep in another direction.

For the most part, the plot of Pegasus is a standard underdog story, although its ending certainly complicates things. Zhang’s rush to win is as much an act of redemption as it is to show his son that he isn’t a loser. Our hero might be a has-been, but like many before him, he’s determined to work hard and get back on top. Unfortunately, Zhang’s motivations don’t go beyond that, and the other characters aren’t any more complicated. While its cast is serviceable, it is interesting that the movie doesn’t really have any antagonists. Generally, Zhang’s hurdles are rooted in accidents and bad luck rather than human malevolence.

As a comedy, Pegasus is able to make up for its thinly sketched cast with a great sense of humor. Stock characters like Sun Yuqiang, the goofy sidekick, have some amusing quirks, like an ability to compose profound poems on the spot. Zhang Fei, the typical cute kid, also provides the movie with some of its best bits. He mistakes his father’s words “Destroy Lin Zhengdong” as an idiom to practice in his notebook, and during Lin and Zhang Chi’s first meeting, Fei imagines their first encounter as an anime-inspired showdown.

The final third of the film, the actual race, takes a more serious turn. The rally, with its quick cuts and split-screens, is genuinely exciting, and the fact that Han Han used professional drivers and technicians makes the stunts and crashes all the more satisfying. While it might not have the richest story, Pegasus pulls off humor and warmth better than anything else released earlier this holiday.

Film Friday is SupChina’s film recommendation column. We’re currently featuring Chinese films available on Netflix. Have a recommendation? Get in touch: editors@supchina.com