Tuesday, March 19, 2024


Last of the big Chinese New Year movies, possibly the biggest to release over there, although I kind of lost track of how they were doing at the box office after a while, because, heck, I don't read stories about American box office these days, instead going with a loose "how long has it hung around?" metric. I guess it did well in China dn it's doing well in Americas, as it's on its second week of two screens in Boston.

Anyway, it's a fair movie, but a couple things sort of got me thinking about lacking a bit of context on certain things. For instance, I went into this one knowing it was a remake of 100 Yen Love, and while it's been a while, I didn't particularly remember its main character being particularly overweight as opposed to just slovenly and lazy, and I spent time grumbling to myself about the fat suit, in part because I haven't seen Jia Ling in much of anything and didn't really know that her actual build was closer to what we see at the start of the film than the end - apparently, she gained 20kg before filming and shed 50kg during, which strikes me as an insane Christian Bale stunt (or perhaps more like Tom Hanks in Cast Away) - but, anyway, it's worth noting that Jia is a famous comedian in China, famous for something I don't even know the definition of ("crosstalk" comedy), so the local audience would have seen her at the start and thought something else.

The period where she drops the weight/tones up is scored with Bill Conti's Rocky theme, and aside from the other issues with using that music here, which I'll get into in the "proper" review, I did immediately find myself wondering - did Rocky get released in Mainland China, back in the day? I can't imagine a lot of Hollywood releases were playing the People's Republic back in the 1970s and 1980s, which means that music is probably not embedded into the pop-cultural firmament the way it is in America such that it instantly conjures up particular associations. Does it simply scan as good music for a training montage to a Chinese viewer? Or, alternatively, has it been used in the Creed movies, which maybe did get released there? Anyway, I suspect that it's a joke that hits differently depending who is seeing it.

Kind of related, in the opposite way: In one of the later episodes of Monsieur Spade, which I watched a few days before this, Clive Owen's Sam Spade refers to "kung fu", and I wonder: Would Sam Spade, retired in the South of France in the early 1960s (yes, this is absolutely my thing), know the phrase "kung fu", which I don't think became particularly well-known until about ten years later, when the David Carradine show arrived. But! He also mentions "that Kato shit", which also seems anachronistic, but The Green Hornet had debuted as a radio show in the 1930s, and given that Monsieur Spade basically uses the timeframe of the most famous production of The Maltese Falcon, Sam would probably know that character. And even if those serials didn't mention "kung fu", he was a San Francisco private detective, whose work presumably took him to Chinatown on occasion. So maybe that's a Tiffany Problem thing, where a thing we figure to be very modern, whether you're talking about the name Tiffany, a white American dude knowing about "kung fu", or Rocky being known in China, goes back further, but hits weird when used in proper historical context.

It's a silly digression, I guess, but that's part of what you have to reckon with when watching movies, like YOLO, that are huge elsewhere and play as a pretty mainstream: It's coming from a different place, and you've got to have that in your head.

Re la gun tang (YOLO)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 March 2024 in AMC Causeway Street #3 (first-run, laser DCP)

The debut behind-the-camera feature from YOLO writer/director/star Jia Ling, Hi, Mom, was an enormous hit in China three years ago, but so far as I can tell has not had a North American release, whether on disc or streaming, despite having a fairly universal premise even if the details are relatively specific to 1990s China. Sony appeared to figure that her follow-up had somewhat wider appeal, giving it a wider release than any of the other five Lunar New Year movies that came out here. They're probably right about that; this isn't necessarily great, but it eventually works as a crowd-pleaser capable of transcending borders.

Based on Japanese film 100 Yen Love, YOLO kicks off with 32-year-old Du Leying (Jia), who has been living above her family's convenience store without doing much since college, and if it wasn't bad enough that cousin Doudou (Andy Yang Zi) was trying to recruit her for the reality show she works for where people beg for jobs, her boyfriend Shanzi (Qiao Shan) has just knocked up her best friend Lili (Li Xueqin), who would nevertheless like Leying to be maid of honor at the wedding to help them save face, and divorced sister Ledan (Zhang Xiaofei) and their parents want her to cede the apartment her grandmother left her so that her daughter Xizi can be in this school district. She walks out and finds a new place and job as a waitress at a barbecue restaurant; that place is next to a boxing gym, where one of the coaches (Lei Jiayin) seems to be interested in her for more than boosting his member-recruiting numbers. Things seem to be looking up - at least, until things start to spiral badly enough that Leying fanatically commits herself to boxing training, wanting to just get one win for once in her life.

For as bad as things sometimes seem to be for Leying, I wonder how many people will see her storm out of the family home with a suitcase and have a decent new apartment and a job that will pay for it by the end of the afternoon and wonder how bad things could really be. I don't remember 100 Yen Love particularly clearly - it has been nearly 9 years since I saw it - but that film seemed a bit more committed to its desperation, though not despair; a sense that the world was keeping Leying's analog Ichiko down as much as her own choices, and a sense that there was still further to fall. That isn't really the case for Leying for much of the film, in part because of how much Jia holds back to make a final montage hit with more power as she reveals just how much Leying is dealing with.

What JIa-the-writer/director does means Jia-the-actress has to work a bit harder, and when she can find a happy medium between the petulant side of the character that is mad at the world and the timid side that's afraid of it, she can absolutely carry the movie, and has to, because even at his best, Lei Jiayin's trainer Haokun is more eccentricities than complementary character. It is impressive that she carries a lot of the same characterization forward to the second half of the movie where she's worked herself into fighting shape, with a chip on her shoulder around the people who had mistreated her and her self-doubt manifesting itself as a feeling that all she has done will become meaningless if she fails once. It's a bit unfortunate that she doesn't get much chance explore how her remade self affects her relationship with other characters - the early scene between Leying, Lili, and Shanzi is fine cringe comedy that doesn't get much chance at an upending; she plays off her mother at the start and her father toward the end; and her non-Haokun coaches weren't much of a factor in the first half - but when she's on, she's on.

It's worth noting that the physical transformation Jia made to play Leying, as depicted during the credits, is kind of nuts: She gained 20kg (about 45 pounds) before shooting started and then lost 50kg (about 110 pounds) mid-film, presumably shooting the training montage in real-time, which seems like a crazy thing when you're just acting and don't have the additional stress of everything else that goes into making a movie, but she pulled it off. She also does a terrific job with the big match, considering that you only have to look at the opponent played by former pro Zhang Guiling to know that Leying is likely just as outmatched as the other characters have been saying, so the story the fight tells might be very different from the standard.

(A little thing that bugged me during the movie: The training montage is scored to Bill Conti's Rocky theme, and… Is it allowed to just use music from another movie for the exact purpose it was originally used for? I mean, I know, it's technically "allowed" given that MGM licensed it, but usually when a movie does this, it's done with irony or subversion or the like. It seems a bit like that for a moment here, but eventually, no, it's just using Rocky music for Rocky things, which seems like a breach of etiquette of some sort.)

YOLO does not exactly pull its punches, to go for the obvious cliché that it will happily embrace, but it does seem to be a bit less than what it could be as it tries to have a triumphant finale without bogging the audience down in just what makes it so triumphant until the last minute.

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