The directorial debut of Taiwanese actor Matt Wu (seen in Reign of Assassins and Sweet Alibis, among others), One Night Only stars Aaron Kwok as Gao Ye, a hopelessly compulsive gambler in heavy debt with ruthless loan sharks who are threatening to dismember him if he doesn’t pay up. Just after being submitted to a violent shakedown with an assorted ultimatum, he’s visited in his dingy hotel room by Momo (Yang Zishan), a prostitute he didn’t call for, but who insists on staying with him for forty minutes, lest her pimps think she’s not working hard enough. Having noticed Momo has a bundle of banknotes in her handbag, Gao Ye ensnares her into a gambling spree with the promise of profitable returns. Initially reluctant, she soon starts going along with it, and over the course of one long night, the two underdogs get into ever deeper trouble as they cross paths with an unhinged gambling rival (Andy On). They also grow closer to each other, slowly unraveling their most painful secrets.
One Night Only is one of those first films that are blessed with the support and input of another, more experienced director, acting as producer. Here it’s high-profile Taiwanese helmer Leste Chen who has surrounded Matt Wu with his regular collaborators, like screenwriters Ren Peng and Chen Zhengdao, cinematographer Charlie Lam and just as importantly, his wife and muse Yang Zishan. The result is a superbly assured debut. The film starts out in overly familiar fashion: we’re introduced to Aaron Kwok’s restless loser Gao Ye as he gambles away what little money he has left, then bargains, begs and grovels his way to a short respite from the loan sharks who hound and humiliate him. But then as Yang Zishan’s prostitute Momo enters his life, she acts as a catalyst that both reveals his past and changes the course of his life. Over 100 minutes, the film blossoms into a poignantly nuanced and tragic portrait of this man, deftly structured in an intricate series of adventures and misadventures where fate plays as much of a role as his self-destructive streak, and streaked with soul-baring interludes reminiscent of classical theatre, where time stands still and Gao Ye and Momo simply talk. One such scene is set in an abandoned mansion from his past, and is so skillfully written, rich in atmosphere and beautifully acted, that it might almost work as a self-contained short film.
It’s a career-best performance from Aaron Kwok, combining traits from his greatest roles – the hangdog quality of the cop in Port of Call (that film’s female revelation, Jessie Li, actually appears in a very small role), the twitchy quirkiness of The Detective films, and most of all the emotional intensity of his character in After This Our Exile – and cohering them into a compellingly tragic creation. For most of the film it seems like Yang Zishan’s character is less fleshed out, though the actress is at all times excellent: that is, until a last-act reveal puts an unsuspected spin on everything we’ve seen her do or say. We wouldn’t dare give the slightest spoiler-ish hint, but it also gives the film an almost metaphysical dimension: this is not a film about gambling, or about luck, this is a film about fate. And as such, no character or episode is gratuitous.
But though fate sounds like a grandiose and potentially overbearing angle – and the film does occasionally slip into less than subtle melodrama – One Night Only is nevertheless full of an energy of the instant, and finds time for not only for a few minutes of Muay Thaï fighting but also for a breathless street-racing scene between a blindfolded Aaron Kwok and his rival (played by Andy On in a fine supporting and non-fighting role). Coordinated by Bruce Law’s son Norman Law, it’s a ludicrous but exciting set-piece that’s actually not as gratuitous as it initially seems. The film was shot in Bangkok (though, incongruously, a quick title situates it in the Chinatown disctrict of the fictional city of Alderney in Liberty City, from the video game GTA IV) which cinematographer Charlie Lam captures in gleaming neon lights balanced with earthy tones. An apt encapsulation of the film itself.
Long Story Short: An assured, deftly-written and superbly-shot directing debut, One Night Only is a heartfelt and energetic rumination on fate, carried by Aaron Kwok at his best. ****