An Aaron Kwok movie is opening on Seattle Screens for the second time in three weeks, as the now venerable pop star/actor follows up his taciturn performance as the cooly rational police bureaucrat in Cold War 2 with a turn as a compulsive gambler with unresolved family issues in Matt Wu’s One Night Only. It’s the Taiwanese Wu’s directorial debut and also stars his wife, Yang Zishan, who starred in Zhao Wei’s directorial debut So Young a few years ago, an unrelated sequel to which called Never Gone opened last week at the Pacific Place.
Like a lot of debut films, One Night Only is positively bursting with ideas and influences, it's a work of exuberant cinephilia, pulling together elements of films as disparate as Nights of Cabiria, Rebel Without a Cause, 2046, One Night in Mongkok, the Fast and the Furious series, and what I imagine Nicholas Sparks films are like into a movie that resolutely refuses to simply be one thing, but rather changes shape every reel or so in a way that never quite holds together, but is nonetheless fascinating in its audacity. It recalls last year’s under-the-radar gem of Chinese cinema, Go Away Mr. Tumor, a film that juggled the demands of the cute CGI rom-com and the cancer melodrama far more successfully than it had any right to. One Night Only doesn’t hang together quite as well, or at all even, but it’s got more energy than almost any movie you’re likely to see at the multiplex this summer.
The film begins with Kwok’s character being roughed up by gangsters for repayment of a debt he owes. They threaten to kidnap his daughter into prostitution unless he pays them back by the next day. As he mopes around his hotel room, possibly suicidal, a prostitute (Yang) knocks on his door, claiming she was sent there to work. She doesn’t, but the two hang out for a bit and go to dinner, where he regales her with the dizzying wisdom of a gambling addict, convincing her to loan him some money. He promptly loses the money at a gaming table, and the two head back to her place to borrow some more. She gets some from a friend, while several of her fellow prostitutes loan him their cash, wanting him to bet it at the local underground cage match. They go to the fights and win a few times, but run into an obnoxious rich guy (Andy On) who knows something of Kwok’s backstory. Their showdown leads to a street race, where Kwok, blindfolded, must maneuver through the city traffic with Yang guiding him, while they try to escape On, not blindfolded. The stunt-work in this sequence is quite well done, putting to shame the digital vehicular antics of last year’s Wild City and Kung Fu Jungle. Kwok and Yang end up in an abandoned mansion, walking and talking in the moonlight. There he shares some of his history and she some of her dreams (including a solid Giulietta Masina impression), in a lengthy scene as dreamy and mellow as the previous action sequence was madly hyperbolic. The two decide to visit Kwok’s teen-aged daughter, where he largely fails to connect with her. Then the gangsters, lead by none other than Jack Kao, kidnap them all and force Kwok to go to jail for someone else’s crime (this is where the film opened: all the preceding had been a flashback). What happens next I daren’t summarize, suffice it to say it’s weird, doesn’t make a bit of sense, but almost totally works nonetheless.
Kwok does fine work here, he’s more lively than I’ve seen him in years, even his performance as the Monkey King earlier this year (in Wu Kong) was not so wild or charismatic, though he’s less convincing in the dramatic scenes, somewhat surprising given the depths of exhausted horror he found in last year’s very fine Port of Call. Yang Zishan though is the source of any emotional believability in the scenario, she’s funny and sad, navigating the film’s twists and inversions with a dextrous and charming logic. The best work in the film, however, is by Hong Kong cinematographer Charlie Lam, who infuses each shot with a myriad of colors, not merely the lugubrious oranges and teals that have been a blight on the cinema for most of this century, nor the cold blue grey of the Cold War movies and other action thrillers, but electric and neon greens and yellows and reds, often all in the same shot, recalling the vibrant images of Hong Kong cinema’s late 80s golden age. As the cinemas of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China become increasingly integrated, there’s been a real fear that each filmic culture would lose its distinctive elements in favor of a homogenized, Hollywoodized (and PRC-approved) smoothness. But a movie like One Night Only, like Go Away Mr. Tumor, like Temporary Family, with their casts and crew pulled from all over the Chinese-speaking world (and all of which were, coincidentally or not, shot by Charlie Lam), shows that the insurgent drive to generic fluidity and heterodoxy, audacity in structure and emotion, the privileging of the image and the moment over the banal consistency of classical Hollywood storytelling that has been the hallmark of Hong Kong cinema for decades, still endures.