One Night Only
China, 2016, colour, 2.35:1, 100 mins.
Director: Wu Zhongtian 吴中天 [Matt Wu].
Offbeat, odd-couple rom-com/romance between a gambling addict and an emotionally needy hooker.
Bohan district, Liberty City, 2020. Gao Ye (Guo Fucheng) is released from Stanford Prison. Back in 2012 he was a compulsive gambler in Chinatown, Alderney district, with debts of US$80,000 to the gangster Bate (Gao Jie), whose thugs (Gao Mengjie, Wu Zhoukai) gave him a painful final warning before threatening to seize his daughter in lieu of payment. That night a prostitute, Momo (Yang Zishan), visited Gao Ye’s seedy hotel room and, even though he said he had no money, ended up staying a while in order to look busy. Seeing she had cash, Gao Ye persuaded her to lend him US$2,000 to gamble, but he lost it all. Back at her dormitory, Momo discovered her prostitute colleague Sue (Zhou Yutong) was planning to run away that night with cage fighter Banzhong (Jirayu Tantrakul). Waiting in the street outside, Gao Ye scammed almost US$40,000 from Momo’s colleagues by pretending to be her cousin. After more gambling ups and downs, Gao Ye won US$100,000 on Banzhong’s cage fight from a gambler, Ma Xiu (An Zhijie), who’d recognised him as the son and heir of the giant Gao Bo Group. Ma Xiu later tried to win the money back in a life-or-death drag race, but he lost. Gao Ye and Momo escaped with their winnings and got to know each other. They then visited his teenage daughter Gao Xiaomin (Li Haofei), who’d lived apart from him since the death of his wife/her mother Jiang Yuqing (Hao Lei). But she resists going with him, and then Momo suddenly collapses.
Taiwan actor Wu Zhongtian 吴中天 [Matt Wu] makes an impressive debut as a feature-film director with the Mainland-funded One Night Only 天亮之前, an offbeat, odd-couple rom-com between a compulsive gambler and an emotionally needy hooker. Set in the underbelly of Bangkok, the film teams Yang Zishan 杨子姗, one of China’s most promising young actresses (So Young 致我们终将逝去的青春, 2013; Miss Granny 重返20岁, 2015), with Hong Kong’s Guo Fucheng 郭富城 [Aaron Kwok], an actor whose reach has often fallen short of his ambitions. Here, however, Guo is at his most convincing for some time and has good chemistry with Yang. Stir in direction that gives full space to the actors without becoming actorly or self-indulgent, plus left-turns that keep the basically simple storyline fresh, and Night adds up to a pretty satisfying, involving entertainment.
Wu, 35, who made a mark with his first film role (Da Yu: The Touch of Fate 指间的重量, 2007) but coasted along on the big screen until his wacky double role in Taiwan crime comedy Sweet Alibis 甜蜜杀机 (2014), already directed the 30-minute Stairway 四十三阶 (2014), a restrained character study of a young boy and his grandmother. Though everything in Night is on a bigger and broader scale, the film shows some of the same restraint, and Wu isn’t afraid to let intimate scenes play out rather than always pushing ahead to the next plot development – a rare enough thing in mainstream Chinese cinema.
In fact, the whole film pivots on two big scenes, each around 15 minutes long, which are entirely carried by dialogue. The first, halfway through, is between Guo and Yang’s characters in a deserted mansion (in which they first drop their guards and start to bond), and the second is in a hotel room, where they’re joined by the teenage daughter of Guo’s character (which establishes them as a de facto family unit). Both actors shine in these scenes, and it’s thanks to them that the ending – set in the “present day” of 2020, and featuring a sizeable backstory – doesn’t derail the whole film. Even though some kind of twist was necessary to explain aspects of Yang’s character, the over-complicated backstory unbalances the movie at a time when it should be rapidly closing. It’s the one major weakness of Ren’s screenplay but it’s thanks to the actors that it works as well as it does, and is even strangely moving.
In fact, despite Night‘s colourful setting of gambling dens, hookers, and the sleazy backstreets of Bangkok’s Chinatown – plus a jazzily packaged drag-race at the midpoint – most of the film is driven by dialogue rather than action. Guo, 51, who always seems to be looking for roles to prove he’s not just a pretty face, is no stranger to either obsessive characters in Bangkok’s underbelly (The Detective C+ 侦探, 2007; The Detective 2 B+ 侦探, 2011) or compulsive gamblers (After This Our Exile 父子, 2006); but he’s much more believable here, as a fallen star who’s hooked on the adrenalin of risk. An actress who’s especially good at adding texture to rote roles, Yang, 30, is in her element, in the tricky role of a streetwise whore with a seemingly gullible heart. But though the two characters are linked by their compulsions, Night isn’t a study of gambling addiction; it’s still an offbeat rom-com/romance, between two people on society’s edges.
In what’s basically a two-hander, supporting roles are all strongly sketched, from 17-year-old Beijinger Li Haofei 李浩菲 (so good as the bosom pal in Nezha 少女哪吒, 2014) to Chinese American An Zhijie 安志杰 [Andy On] as a macho gambler whose wounded pride leads to the drag-race setpiece. In smaller parts, China’s Hao Lei 郝蕾 is solid as the wife of Guo’s character and Taiwan’s Gao Jie 高捷 [Jack Kao] clocks in yet again as a gangster.
Without diminishing Wu’s contribution, the hidden hand behind the film is that of Taiwan director Chen Zhengdao 陈正道 [Leste Chen], 36, who takes a producer credit here, has worked regularly with the film’s lead writer Ren Peng 任鹏 (Say Yes! 101次求婚, 2013; The Great Hypnotist 催眠大师, 2014; Miss Granny), helped make a star of Yang in Granny, and also appears to have recommended most of the key technical crew on Night (including d.p., editor, art director, stylist, action director and VFX co-ordinator). Further underlining the almost family feel, Chen and Yang have since continued their association with the thriller Battle of Memories 记忆大师, 2017 (also shot in Thailand) and Wu himself just happens to be married to Yang. Technical contributions are expectedly smooth at every level, apart from the unsuitably funky main title music (Mind Falls by DJ Head).
The Chinese title means “Before Daybreak”. According to on-screen titles, the film is set in districts of Liberty City, a fictional place modelled on New York and New Jersey in the Grand Theft Auto series of computer games, though later material in the film clearly identifies the setting as Bangkok. On release, Night grossed only a very mild RMB36 million in the Mainland.
Presented by Fujian Hengye Pictures (CN). Produced by Fujian Hengye Pictures (CN).
Script: Ren Peng, Li Youning. Photography: Lin Zhijian [Charlie Lam]. Editing: Yang Hongyu, Deng Wentao. Music: We Are One. Main-title music: DJ Head. Music direction: Chen Junting. Art direction: Luo Shunfu, Fang Shengxiang; Narongchai Ounjai, Kreethaphon Sukkanum (Thailand). Styling: Ye Zhuzhen. Sound: Chen Ting, Zhao Nan, Yang Hong. Action: Luo Yimin [Norman Law]. Special effects: Luo Yimin [Norman Law]. Visual effects: Xu Jian, Liu Ying.
Cast: Guo Fucheng [Aaron Kwok] (Gao Ye), Yang Zishan (Chen Yixia/Momo), Hao Lei (Jiang Yuqing, Gao Ye’s wife), An Zhijie [Andy On] (Ma Xiu/Mathew), Gao Jie [Jack Kao] (Bate/Barth, gangster), Wang Deshun (videoshop owner), Zhang Yao (adult Gao Xiaomin), Yu Mingjia (Gao Xiaomin’s aunt), Gao Mengjie (Yilong/Dragon, thug), Wu Zhoukai (Yifeng/Phoenix, thug), Li Haofei (young Gao Xiaomin), Zhou Yutong (Sue, prostitute), Hao Xuankai (Ma Xiu’s assistant), Jirayu Tantrakul (Banzhong/BZ, Sue’s boyfriend), Jiao Yaliang (young Gao Ye), Chun Xia (young Jiang Yuqing), Ling Xiaohua (Gao Ye’s father), Wang Yihua (Gao Ye’s mother), Li Hua (Jiang Yuqing’s father), Fan Tiantian (Li, older prostitute), Song Jiateng (croupier), Jin Jin (policeman).
Premiere: Shanghai Film Festival (Asian New Talent Award), 11 Jun 2016.
Release: China, 22 Jul 2016.