Just One Look

Wong Yau Nam, a child, and Shawn Yue work the fishball stand in 1970's Cheng Chau.

Riley Yip’s Just One Look is a pleasant surprise of a film. Given the pop star pedigree of the cast, which includes young idols Shawn Yue, Wong Yau Nam, and both Twins (Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung), it’s not hard to come in expecting a lightweight commercialized youth romance. While romance is indeed involved, the film is also about of bitter grudges, martial arts, the transformation into adulthood, and of course, the love of cinema.

The films starts out with Fan, played by Li Ting-Fung as a child and Shawn Yue as an adult, witnessing an argument between his father (Sam Lee), a decorated policeman, and Crazy (Anthony Wong), a local triad who Fan’s father is in debt to. The two see a movie shortly afterward, and partway through, the father gets up to leave, taking one last look at his son before entering the bathroom, where gunshots are soon heard from. While the death is largely assumed to be a suicide, Fan swears for many years that Crazy was responsible.

The theater serves as the central location of the film, as later Fan and his friend Ming (Wong Yau Nam), later run a food stand outside. The films that play in the theater serve as an important part of the film’s plot, which could largely be seen as a film about early 1970’s Hong Kong film culture. The martial arts craze of the time leads the boys to an interest in kung fu, and after witnessing a demonstration of the butterfly knives by a local Hung Gar school, the boys immediately enroll, with Fan wanting to avenge the death of his father and Ming hoping to woo the teacher’s young daughter Nam (Charlene Choi). Fan himself gets a love interest in a young woman who is raised in a nunnery, who only calls herself the Decimator (Gillian Chung).

Just One Look eschews almost all the common stylistics of a Hong Kong film, aside from the mixing of various genre conventions which is common in the local film industry, which is well balanced throughout the film. The fast pace and energy typical of local cinema are replaced with a calm, sometimes even meditative approach. That’s not to say that the film is necessarily “deep,” but the relaxed style creates an appealing atmosphere that manages to help the film actually achieve the label of being “touching” toward its final moments. In the end it may teeter toward being a melodrama, it never feels overwrought or calculated, but rather like a sincere and heartfelt statement by its creator.

The real treat in Just One Look, not surprisingly, is for fans of late 1960’s/early 1970’s Chinese cinema. The film contains references to many classic films from the era, perhaps most notably Lo Wei’s Fist of Fury and King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, the latter whose protagonist Ming compares Nam to. Adding more fun to the references to these classic films are the moments when Fan envisions himself and the people in his life as the characters on screen, providing some of the most revealing moments about Fan’s character.

Just One Look is not by any means a perfect film. For example, an action sequence late in the film feels a bit out of place and isn’t particularly well edited, and the scenes that involve rival youth gangs getting in fist fights over territory add little to the film. However, these don’t stop Yip’s film from being one of the bright spots in the middle of a dry spot for Hong Kong cinema.

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About Adam DiPiazza
I love Peach Snapple.

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