Even though Taiwan never really followed through on the immense promise it showed a couple of years ago, there's still heaps of untapped potential lingering over there. Matt Wu is the latest name to join the list of talented Taiwanese directors with a promising future. One Night Only is a superb calling card for a director his age, a film so full of vigor and cinematic joy it requires zero effort to overlook its slight shortcomings and just enjoy it for what it is.
If Matt Wu's name rings a bell, it's probably because he started his career as an actor. Highlights so far include Make Up and Jianyu, but it's clear that Wu can do more than just parade in front of the camera. It's true that he got a little help from seasoned Taiwanese director Leste Chen (who took on the role of producer for One Night Only), but the film bears all the signs of a young, talented director eager to leave behind something he can call his own.
The only thing One Night Only lacks is focus, but that's somewhat characteristic for a film made by an eager, first-time director. It's almost impossible to pin a genre on One Night Only, with influences ranging from Hong Kong crime cinema to Wong Kar-Wai's 2046 to a million things in between. You may be put off by this, but it does give the film a certain vitality that is difficult to find in the films of seasoned directors. Once a director becomes more experienced, he tends to lose the boundless enthusiasm that comes with the naivety of a first-timer, so I definitely welcome films like these from time to time.
The film follows Gao Ye, an infamous gambler down on his luck. Knee deep in debts, his daughter is taken hostage and Ye is given a deadline to dig up the money he owes. That's a bit of a problem, since Ye doesn't have any and all he knows is gambling. His luck changes when he runs into Momo, a young and seemingly naïve prostitute. He manages to convince her to lend him some money, what Ye doesn't realize is that their meeting is anything but a coincidence.
While the film may lack focus, there is one pleasant constant. From start to finish, from the very first frame to the very last, the film looks drop dead gorgeous. Cinematographer Charlie Lam did a terrific job, using extremely vibrant colors, graceful camera work and some amazing settings to give the film heaps of flair. The film is visually intense, not a single moment goes by without something cinematographically interesting happening on screen. It sure helps to gel everything together, especially when Wu goes through one of his somewhat crude genre switches.
The soundtrack is pretty interesting too. Chinese (and I'm including Hong Kong and Taiwanese) cinema isn't exactly known for its daring music choices, so it's nice to at least some experimentation happening. There's even a slight Johnnie To vibe going on, with some slightly quirkier track appearing at times you wouldn't really expect them to. It's not quite up there with To at his peak, but it's a fun soundtrack and it does a good job illustrating the fun Wu must've had making this film.
Taking up the lead is Aaron Kwok, in a role that reminded me a little of his part in the Pang's Jing Taam trilogy (though his character here is a bit more outgoing). It's no surprise Kwok has the necessary flair to pull off a role like this, the biggest revelation is Zishan Yang's performance, who gives Kwok a good run for his money. Yang is Matt Wu's wife and while that might have made the casting a little easier, Yang does absolutely nothing to betray Wu's trust. On the contrary even, as the chemistry between Yang and Kwok is another key element in the success of the film. Secondary parts are solid too, with Jack Kao and and Andy On as the most eye-catching additions.
One Night Only is a film that's sure to divide its audience. If you're looking for a tightknit, well-scripted, solid experience, this might not be what you are looking for. If instead you don't mind a little genre hopping and you can appreciate a director who has visible fun messing around with the medium, then this is an easy recommend. The voyage from crime to romance to drama might be a weird one, but if you're not too fixated on the destination One Night Only is an awesome ride.
Matt Wu is hardly the first Asian actor to turn director, but he's definitely one of the more promising ones. He clearly isn't satisfied with making just another genre film, instead opting to shake things up a little. One Night Only is raw and undiluted cinematic fun, boasting superb visuals, a great soundtrack and a more than solid cast. I hope this film does well enough for Wu to get another shot at directing, because he definitely deserves to build up a second career as a director. I'm pretty confident this film will have little trouble making it in my list of 2016 favorites.