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MOVIE REVIEW: Big Laughs, Bigger Heart: a review of the Chinese blockbuster film ‘YOLO’

There’s no question as to why ‘YOLO’ is the biggest blockbuster film in China for this year. It has all the laughs but still manages to present a tender heart beneath all that comedy.

The first thirty minutes of ‘YOLO’ was a little difficult to jump into – the first act takes its time to establish the world of its main character Leying (performed by Jia Ling, who is also the director and co-writer of the movie), an overweight bum, who lives with her parents and does not have a job. In the first half-hour, the film is filled with jokes and jabs that are meant to shame Leying for being overweight and lazy, oftentimes bordering on jokes that are insensitive and in the general area of fat-shaming. She gets into a fight with her sister while also discovering her boyfriend is cheating on her with her best friend. While some jokes are funny – the ones not centering around her weight or laziness – it’s mostly a difficult first half hour to stomach.

When Leying finally leaves home, sets out on her own, to get a job and distance herself from her family and friends who have treated her with so much disdain does the film find its footing and begins to soar. Lying meets up with a boxing coach just across her place of work and a series of hilarious mishaps puts them together and she finds herself motivated to get her life in order. The remaining three-fourths of the film is a hilarious, inspiring story about a woman taking charge of her life having felt like a loser for the past decade. 

‘YOLO’ is Jia Ling’s sophomore directorial effort after the popular and successful debut outing ‘Hi, Mom.’ In preparation for this film, Jia Ling gained 20 kilograms to play Leying and then lost just so much more in the film. The film took over a year to shoot because it included Leying’s incredible transformation in setting her life straight. If all stories are centered around a change, this is the most cinematic of changes that happens in ‘YOLO’ because it does not involve any sort of camera tricks or special effects. It’s all practical real-world transformation that goes in step with the film’s story beats for its full effect.

Jia Ling’s directing is quite sophisticated and underscores her training as a comedian. She knows how to set up the camera and edit to maximize the comedy. There’s a subversive way that she uses the conventions of the romantic comedy to land a punchline and really set up the story that really pushes Leying to the wall and force her to make the necessary changes that would improve her life. There’s an excellent use of music, of mise-en-scene, and an unpredictable way the narrative shifts and turns that keeps ‘YOLO’ from being run-of-the-mill or predictable. 

At its core, the film is an underdog story that takes its time to really amplify Leying’s lot in life. It never takes the time to underscore how she got into the rut in the first place. It’s not the point of the film. It does not judge her for it. What the film is interested in are the factors that motivated her to make the change. Despite its brutal first thirty-minutes, the last hour and a half really turns around, much like Leying, and delivers the comedy while creating an emotional investment with the character and then allowing it to reach a satisfying ending that feels earned and offers some catharsis.

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Jia Ling is captivating as Leying. She is unafraid to make her so bereft of charm at the beginning of the film but manages to pull it out mid-movie as she plays off the equally wonderful Lei Jiayin, who plays her boxing coach Hao Kun. The way they play off each other as a very unsuspecting rom-com couple is used for all its comedic magic and it works very well in establishing the film’s rather triumphant second act. But the way by which the film keeps shifting and turning and moving to unexpected places is what keeps ‘YOLO’ from being what you would think it is. This is what makes Jia Ling so exciting. This is her sophomore directorial effort and she already is exercising such precision and control of her craft. I’m very much excited to see what else she sets out to do. There’s no question as to why ‘YOLO’ is the biggest blockbuster film in China for this year. It has all the laughs but still manages to present a tender heart beneath all that comedy. 

My Rating:


YOLO opens in PH cinemas April 17 with sneak previews on April 8 and 9. Check screening times and buy tickets in advance here.

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Movie Info

Yolo
Action, Comedy, Drama

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