Monday, August 14, 2023

One and Only

I could make the standard joke about weaning one's self off Fantasia slowly, maybe by only seeing one Chinese film on a day when you could see two, but truth be told, I had three days of not seeing movies including not seeing this one before coming home, and then it was the only thing I saw Sunday.

What's kind of interesting is that this got writer/director "Da Peng" Dong Chengpeng on my Letterboxd for directors I'd seen multiple movies from this much as I'd remembered that he directed Jian Bing Man and City of Rock and that was one of the reasons I was interested in Post Truth four months ago, but, for some reason, that pretty darn good movie didn't leap to mind when making plans for this one.

I chose to see it on Sunday because, between my return flight being Saturday, returning to work Monday, and the film only having matinee shows, that was the only window to see it. What's kind of surprising to me is that Post Truth also was only booked for matinees, although I don't remember if it was quite so well-attended as One and Only was. I gather co-star Yang Yibo is a big rock star in China, which might be the main reason why there was a decent, young-looking crowd at Boston Common, although the decision to limit shows like this is odd, considering. Maybe they've got data that says Jian Bing Man and City of Rock did much better in matinees. Odd coincidence, otherwise.

At any rate, I liked this quite a bit, but I'm amused that this is the fourth movie of Da Peng's I've seen and the fourth time I've been kind of wary of it beforehand before rather liking it. Maybe he's just a filmmaker I like.

Re lie (One and Only)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 August 2023 in AMC Boston Common #13 (first-run, DCP)

I don't watch a whole lot of these dance-focused movies, but I've always gathered that if you can just tread water or do a little better until the big dance-off comes, the audience will probably go home happy. This movie has a strong enough core in writer/director "Da Peng" Dong Chengpeng and costars Bio Huang and Wang Yibo that the stuff that goes on when they're not dancing is going to be pretty competent, and that will do until it's time to dance.

The film opens with a street dance competition in Zhejiang, where the E-Mark team coached by Ding Lei (Bo Huang) is initially fretting because their star dancer Kevin (Casper Chu) is running late, and when he does show, he throws a fit when one of his teammates misses a move. Ding suggests this would not be an issue if Kevin practiced with the team, while Kevin instead suggests they fire various team members and bring in foreign ringers. Elsewhere in the city, Chen Shuo (Wang Yibo), who once auditioned for the team but didn't make it, is working three jobs between a car-wax shop, dancing gigs for Brother Xie (Xia Shenyang), and the restaurant run by his mother (Liu Mintao). Bing hits upon the idea of hiring Shuo as a sort of stand-in for practice, and he quickly bonds with the rest of the team, triggering Kevin's jealousy as the next competition nears.

All of this stuff is pretty much on-template; the film is full of stock characters, from the egomaniac who breaks with the team to the coach's ex who still kind of likes him to the amiable teammates to the cute young reporter, but the cast all know what these folks need, everyone is sincere including the comic relief. That' a bit of a surprise, since the other three films from Da Peng and co-writer Su Biao which have crossed the Pacific to play American theaters were fairly broad comedies, and this film is played more or less straight. When it's time for jokes, they're pretty good, and everyone involved seems to get that earnest support is going to play better than manufactured conflict that the audience can spot as phony a mile away. There's the occasional great bit, while the awkwardly-plotted twisting in the last act plays like the filmmakers were torn between two paths and tried to keep bits of both because it gives Bo Huang a nice moment to play for boos.

Interestingly, Bo often plays Ding like the sort of zany loser that Da Peng usually plays in the films he writes and directs, a fast-talking striver bouncing back from self-inflicted wounds, but he seems to get how the youthful ambition thwarted by a broken leg clashes with the paternal instincts that make Ding a good coach, and his most memorable scenes show a man keenly aware of the conflict. Wang Yibo's Shuo is often the opposite - a dutiful son who needs building up to have the sort of forceful stage presence Kevin does - but he handles the build-up well. Song Zuer plays well off him as the reporter who bonds with Shuo over them both kind of being interns, and Liu Mintao hits most of the "sad backstory but doesn't let it interfere with supporting her son" points quite well. Casper Chu and the other folks who are primarily dancers are used well.

So that keeps things moving in well-lubricated fashion until it's time for the big showdown between Kevin's team and Shuo's, and there's some terrific dancing in the finale. Da Peng probably could have more dance scenes on the way there - some of those scenes are shot and cut in such a way that they don't look as much like amazing sequences as one-off feats, and don't showcase the rest of the team's moves well enough that Shuo breaking them out would have an impact without announcers narrating what's going on - but the climax is terrific, including a literal exclamation point that could easily draw laughs but somehow doesn't. I gather Wang Yibo is a big pop star in China, so it's probably not surprising he can dance a bit, especially when you think back to how he stole a couple action scenes in Hidden Blade earlier this year. He doesn't really have to be a whole lot more than likable for most of the movie, but he sure shows up when it counts, on and off the dance floor. Da Peng and his crew don't lock the camera down or stop cutting in the climax - they keep the energy up and check in on the side-stories of all Shuo's friends and family - but they both know that this is both a talent showcase and a way to show who Shuo and Kevin are and what they've become over the movie.

And when that hits, yes, you forget a bit that the previous hour and a half was kind of by the numbers, albeit from a cast and crew that execute the template with care rather than indifference. They're looking to make a movie that plays well to a crowd, and hit the target squarely.



Wang Yibo "can dance a bit"? Yes, indeed he can. May I recommend Street Dance China series 3, 4 and 5 to you - free on YouTube and brilliant. He is mesmerising when he dances! I like your review of One and Only. The only thing I would add is that on my second viewing, it hit me that this film is not really about dancing at all - it is about team spirit. I would recommend any company, sports team or dance group which cares about creating good teamwork should make this movie mandatory viewing because it shows what is involved in real team spirit without preaching, in the most entertaining way, with humour and a fast-moving story thrown in. Plus the stunning finale of course - surprising and so exciting!

Jane Le said...

Enjoy reading your review. One fun fact though about Wang Yibo. He is a multi-talented top young star with millions and millions of fans in China and some other southern Asian counties. half due to his acting and half due to his over the top dancing skills and graceful dancing style. He started learning hip-pop dancing when he was 11~12 years old. He started with breaking, then moved on to hip-pop after he had to quit breaking because of injuries. He even managed to advance to the top 16 in a natioanl hip-pop competition when he was only 13. He then was scouted and went to Korean and then became part of a boy band called Uniq. He can dance various street dances (hip pop, locking, popping, swag, krump, breaking) even contemporary dance in a pretty professional way (check out Youtube for his various dance videos). Movie One and Only got Wang Yibo picked up the breaking again. Almost all Chen Shuo's breaking moves in the movie were actually played by Wang Yibo himself. The director Da Peng once commented that it was Wang Yibo who made the movie One and Only became possible.