Just One Look (2002)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2010-05-31
Summary: A good movie-movie
"Just One Look" is Riley Yip's homage to movies although from the point of view of the audience instead of the filmmaker. Unlike “Day of Night” by Truffaut or “The Player” by Altman it isn’t a master looking at his art/craft/business but how movies can teach basic truths, show us how to deal with everyday life and how to escape from it when necessary. Almost everything in “Just One Look” happens in the context of movie watching: romance, revenge, friendship and love occur on the scene and in the lives of the characters almost simultaneously.

There are specific reference to scores of films. One of the most telling is when Ghost Girl and Fan are hiding from an inquisitive nun by ducking into the shower and then turning it on. They are facing each other and both are fully clothed. We see that Fan is thinking of a series of kissing scenes from both Hong Kong and western films as he crouches next to Ghost Girl. Immediately one recalls Giuseppe Tornatore’s masterpiece “Cinema Paradiso” with the glorious ending consisting of all the kissing scenes that the officious priest had ordered cut from the films shown in the village during years past and which had been saved and spliced together into one long hyper-romantic sequence.

Movies are part of our introduction to both Fan and Ghost Girl. We see Ghost Girl as a young child asking the chief nun if the Buddha’s Palm strike really exists. She is told that of course it doesn’t, it is just part of a movie. Fan, when we first see him, is waiting for his father to come out of the local Triad casino to go across the street to see a movie, something we think that father and son have often done. This trip ends tragically and resonates throughout the rest of the story, always reflected in what Fan sees on screen. Nam, the demon drummer, and her father Gok Pow, a martial arts master with a very singular method of teaching, turn out to be immersed in movies even while Gok Pow denounces the horrible influence that action movies have on his pupils.

Much of the action takes place in front of the town cinema where Fan and his grandmother make their living with a sugar cane stand with huge posters of current and coming attractions serving as a backdrop. Fan’s best friend, Ming, works right next to them in his mother’s fish ball stand. Over the course of a year or so, with many flashbacks to younger but not really simpler days, Fan and Ming fall in love with Ghost Girl and Nam and feel the incredibly poignant joys and frustrations of relationships.

The turning point in Fan’s life was his father’s suicide, something which he has always refused to accept, deciding instead that Crazy, the venal and cowardly Triad chieftain (played to sneering, sniveling perfection by Anthony Wong) actually killed him. While Crazy was part of the world that became too much for Fan’s father to live in any longer Crazy was no more responsible for the suicide than were the fellow cops investigating Fan’s father. One way that Fan deals with this is seeing himself as the good guy and Crazy as the villain in action movies, scenes which always result in Fan killing his nemesis. These scenes are very well done--the first one is quite surprising when we realize we are no longer watching someone watch a film but are seeing him fantasize being an instrument of righteous slaughter and holy vengeance.

One parallel between Fan’s father the apparently corrupt cop and Crazy, the foul and debauched gangster, takes place in front of the movie theater. When they are going in Fan’s father stops at the can stand and picks up to pieces one for each of them. A look passes between him and the stall owner that says volumes--Fan’s father doesn’t expect to pay, the stall owner propitiates him feeling he is getting off cheaply and Fan, of course, doesn’t see what is really happening. Ten years later, with Fan and his grandmother are running the same cane stand in the same place Crazy comes through to not only take free cane--and fish balls from the adjoining stand--but also to pick up his protection payment. The point that the two of them are actually part of the same unsavory world is subtle but unmistakable.

Riley Yip did an excellent job with Shawn Yu Man-Lok and Wong Yau-Nam. They carry the movie and carry us along as they come of age. Shawn Yu in particular is a charismatic young actor with talent to burn. The slender capacities of Gillian Chung and Charlene Choi to impersonate characters other than themselves weren’t taxed and the large cast of supporting players, many of them getting their first acting credits here, helped keep things moving.

The last scene in which Fan finally sees the owner of a piece of lingerie about which he and his friends have been speculating could refer to another Giuseppe Tornatore masterpiece, “Malena”, another film about the joys of being a spectator
Reviewer Score: 8