Film Review: One Night Only

Marvelous to look at, actor Matt Wu’s first feature shows the hand of a natural filmmaker with a gift for visual pizazz, as well as a surprisingly deep understanding of love.
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Gao Ye (Aaron Kwok), heir to a fortune and a gambling addict, racks up a serious debt, shortly after being released from prison. He encounters a prostitute, Mo Mo (Yang Zishan), who at first is miffed that he has no money. But she ends up giving him her life savings to start a business in black-market sports—i.e., kickboxing. However, Gao Ye’s underworld enemies, to whom he owes the money, are hot on their trail, with an ensuing kidnapping, car chases and murder, as the two of them—seemingly polar opposites—hesitantly fall in love.

There’s nothing particularly new plot-wise in this Chinese film, with many of the story tropes dating back to early 1930s Warner crime epics, but debut director Matt Wu proves himself one young helmer to watch. One Night Only has a bracingly youthful visual verve to it, and Wu is a born storyteller, drawing us in through all the violent underworld shenanigans, straight to the oftimes embattled romance between Gao Ye and Mo Mo, frequently hilarious and touching. The presence of a number of beautiful, strong women in the cast is a blessing, lending something extra to what would have been a mere macho genre piece. Besides Mo Mo, there is Gao Ye’s feisty daughter, who resents him for being absent her whole life, as well as the cadre of flashy, entertaining whores who work alongside our heroine. (The cathouse scenes, in particular, are beautifully lit, rife with alluringly louche touches.)

Without real chemistry between the leads, this would be nothing. Luckily, they have it in spades, making this the most authentically romantic film around at the moment. All the skillfully staged action scenes come to an abrupt halt in the middle of the move, with a magically intimate scene in which each confesses their innermost dreams and desires to each other, him initially scoffing at her wish to be an actress after a lifetime of enforced prostitution.

Kwok has a scruffy Everyman appeal and is completely convincing, easily sliding into different identities, whether it’s a young prince commanding the casino, with a family fortune behind him, or the manic gutter rat he becomes after he gambles it all away. Zishan retains every bit of the formidable charm she displayed in Miss Granny, and adds a rich emotional depth to her inescapable charisma with her ingratiating and touching character here.

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