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Review: “One Night Only” is a Tragic Romance Between Flawed People

Director Matt Wu discusses the dichotomy between darkness and brightness -- and what it was like working with his wife on set

By , 30 Jan 19 01:41 UTC
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When a gambling addict meets a prostitute, “romance” is not usually the first word that comes to mind. Yet, director Matt Wu manages to craft a beautiful story around two individuals who live on the fringes of society, each with their own tragic backgrounds in One Night Only (Chinese: 天亮之前). 

Aaron Kwok stars as the compulsive gambler Gao Ye — the only heir to a vast family fortune that he gambles away. After Gao is released from a brief stint in prison, a prostitute named Momo (Yang Zishan of So Young and Walking Past the Future) shows up at his doorstep with unknown intentions. Gao quickly leads Momo into the world of underground gambling, losing thousands at roulette before borrowing more money from Momo’s colleagues to bet on cage fighting. It’s at the cage fights that the duo descends deeper into the criminal underworld — after winning a bet against a wealthy playboy, Gao and Momo are challenged to a street race that results in the death of a traffic cop.

Image courtesy of Cheng Cheng Films.

Matt Wu was initially “attracted by how [One Night Only] uniquely blends different genres” when he first read the script.

Although One Night Only is set in the criminal underworld, the film is far from a crime thriller. Rather, One Night Only remains focused on the tragic romance between Gao and Momo. While at the surface, neither character seems particularly sympathetic, over the course of the movie it’s easy to get lost in their struggles and start to empathize with them.

In a beautifully shot scene after the street race, Gao takes Momo to his shell of a mansion and the two talk about their life stories and dreams. This is when Gao reveals he had a wife and daughter — and that his greatest dream is to have enough money to buy his daughter a nice gift. Emotions run high through the second half of the film as Gao tries to reconcile with his estranged daughter, all the while deepening his relationship with Momo.

“The desperate gambler and the disgraced hooker live at the bottom of the city. They race through the underground world and get pushed by all kinds of unpredictable incidents to their extremes. But behind these dramatic conflicts is a brief and genuine love story.”

Kwok and Yang’s acting do justice to the “genuine love story” between Gao and Momo — especially Yang’s portrayal of Momo between playful moments, and more romantic and sorrowful interludes.

In real life, Yang is actually married to Matt Wu, which would certainly have made for an interesting experience on set. In fact, the duo played a couple together in an episode of the Taiwanese mini-series, Female Zodiac Stories (“清蜜星體驗女生版”). As it turns out, Matt Wu has a higher opinion of his wife’s acting skills, than Huang Xiaoming of Angelababy’s.

“It is a huge blessing to work with your closest loved one. Communication can be easier or harder, both because of our familiarity with each other. Matter of fact, she’s an excellent and experienced actress. I’m a new and inexperienced director. During the process, she helped me work with her patience and understanding. I’m just too lucky.”

Image courtesy of Cheng Cheng Films.

As you get lost in the story of One Night Only, you may be distracted by the fact that while everyone is Chinese and speaks Chinese, the film itself is actually set in Bangkok (Thailand). While story could have happened anywhere from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City, and there is no shortage of wealthy ethnically Chinese business people in Thailand, the choice of location (and lack of any direct mention thereof) is particularly interesting. Matt Wu commented that the city of Bangkok very much reflects the story in the film.

“To me, Bangkok blends different extremes and conflicts just like the story. The city is deeply religious and openly sexual at the same time. People in Bangkok are polite and humble with others, but meanwhile muay thai is known for its brutal violence. Most Thai men are tanned and muscular, but Thai language sounds so soothing. Sweet, sour and spicy at the same time, Bangkok is a city the story of One Night Only can find home in.”

One Night Only also gave a nod to the Oscar-winning Italian film Nights of Cabiria, a tragic tale of a prostitute’s attempt to find love. Momo cites Nights of Cabiria as one of her favorite movies, quoting it directly multiple times in the film — especially when she asks Gao if he “could ever love [her].” Momo later thanks Gao for letting her act as if she was his wife when Gao is with his daughter, giving her a taste of what real love might be (Cabiria was not so lucky).

Matt Wu was eager to take advantage of the reference to Nights of Cabiria.

“The leading characters in the two films mirror each other. Cabiria keeps falling in love to explore possibilities of loving and being loved. Similarly, Momo, a prostitute who has never been in love, wants to experience love for once before leaving the world for good … with One Night Only we hope to pay tribute to Nights of Cabiria and just all the fearless sacrifices made to understand the essence of love.”

Image courtesy of Cheng Cheng Films.

Without giving too much away, One Night Only hardly gives the audience a comforting closure to the story between Gao and Momo, but it’s in the film’s tragic ending that One Night Only reminds us that, in real life, couples don’t always end up happily ever after. Sometimes, people meet only for a fleeting moment, but even fleeting moments can have a lasting, lifetime impact.

This message was one of the motivations for Matt Wu to shoot this story.

“The integrity of [Gao and Momo’s] love is not determined by how much time the two spend together and how different their living conditions are. Darkness and brightness are not two opposites. Instead, they support each other. The darker the night gets, the brighter the stars look.”

One Night Only is available on VOD starting January 31st 2019, including on Amazon Prime Video.

One Night Only (Chinese: 天亮之前)China. Directed by Matt Wu. First released July 2016. Running time 1 hr 41 min. Starring Aaron Kwok and Yang Zishan.

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