‘YOLO’ Review: A Megahit Chinese Boxing Movie That Needs More Punch

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Macho sports-movie tropes meet with bright chick-flick framing to curious effect in “YOLO,” either an ostensible boxing drama that doesn’t pick up the gloves until the third act, or a misfit romcom that takes a late and unusual turn toward transformational self-help territory. Chinese audiences have been delighted by either formulation, as Jia Ling’s second feature as director-star — following 2021’s popular time-travel comedy “Hi, Mom” — has racked up the year’s second-highest global gross so far, mostly on the strength of its domestic receipts. That’s been enough to secure it an international release through Sony, but “YOLO” is likelier to bemuse outside viewers unfamiliar with Jia’s persona as a celebrity comedian — and her extreme weight-loss journey while making the film, a narrative that powered its publicity on home turf.

“YOLO” is itself a work of cultural translation, adapted as it is from Japanese director Masaharu Take’s well-regarded 2014 drama “100 Yen Love,” which starred Sakura Ando as a downtrodden Tokyo woman reclaiming her life through pugilism. Taking its tonal and aesthetic cues from American independent cinema, Take’s film was stoic, gritty and only occasionally spiked with mordant humor. Though Jia and her four co-writers stick to the narrative template of the original, they wrest this formerly low-key story into broader, brasher comic territory, complete with a surfeit of pop-scored montages and clumsy physical gags. The result has nothing like “100 Yen Love’s” scrappy power, though as a star vehicle for its appealing and plainly intrepid maker, it works well enough. It’s not inconceivable that Hollywood could get the remake memo this time.

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The film opens in medias res as Leying (Jia) psyches herself up for her first big bout — crucially showing us her hands but not the rest of her body — before rewinding a couple of years to introduce us to a Leying who looks significantly less match-ready. An unemployed, plus-size college graduate whose life has hit a dead end at age 30, she spends her days holed up in her parents’ apartment, moving only to shift her position on the couch. At home, she squabbles with her pushy Type-A sister Ledan (Zhang Xiaofei), while her TV-producer cousin Doudou (Yang Zi) attempts to put her forward for a demeaning reality show. Away from her family, things are no better, as she discovers her notional boyfriend (Qiao Shan) and notional best friend (Li Xueqin) are not just having an affair, but planning their wedding.

Determined to change her life, Leying takes a waitressing job and leaves home, renting a small apartment with help from her gently supportive mother (a lovely Zhao Haiyan, underplaying more than most). It takes this 129-minute movie an awfully long time to get through this essential setup, and still Leying’s self-reinvention is some way off. Much of a sluggish second act is consumed with her halting, ultimately toxic relationship with hard-up boxing coach Hao Kun (Lei Jiayin), who takes her on as an unlikely student. The feelings she develops for him aren’t returned in equal proportion, but they move in together nonetheless, as Leying becomes an emotional punching bag for Hao Kun’s frustrations over his own thwarted sporting dreams.

There’s potentially a whole film in this pained, conflicted anti-romance, but “YOLO” treats it as merely another narrative hurdle to be cleared before it belatedly reaches its feelgood crux — when Leying finally strikes out on her own and hits the gym hard. Cue a series of training montages, as Leying sheds over 100 pounds over the course of a year, and eagerly fashions herself as a featherweight. It’s a remarkable before-our-eyes metamorphosis, and as the woman who underwent it in real life, Jia shoots and presents this passage in an understandably proud, rousing register. Yet the film’s emphatic celebration of a character’s physical change, after having played her size for comedy earlier on, somewhat compromises the intended air of uplift. Viewers can take what message they want from Leying’s progression, but not all will find body positivity in her less-is-more makeover.

Spiritual and psychological well-being is the longer-term goal here, and “YOLO” does bring Leying closer to that goal via a poignant sporting climax that strikes a more realistic note than much of the preceding drama. Still, it’s an outcome we could have called far earlier in proceedings, well before Jia really shows her hand by sampling Bill Conti’s “Rocky” theme to soundtrack her character’s training. As a director, she has little use for nuance and less still for subtlety. An an actor, she corrects those deficits to some extent: There’s a quiet, believable integrity to Leying that pulls her through the film’s more crass or condescending interludes and its shiny, pastel-hued styling. Anyone familiar with “100 Yen Love” may well find themselves missing that film’s shadows and crevices. But it’s precisely “YOLO’s” lighter tone and heavier hand that has made it a multimillion-dollar baby.

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