Perhaps it’s the picturesque landscapes or the breathtaking architecture or maybe it’s the fact that the language of the land exudes passion, but there’s something about Italy that makes it the ideal setting for a romance movie. From Roman Holiday and Avanti to Under The Tuscan Sun and To Rome With Love, people have been falling in love for years on the big screen against the spectacular Italian backdrop. Only You, the latest in this long line of tradition, stars Tang Wei and Liao Fan (Black Coal, Thin Ice) and is a remake of the 1994 Norman Jewison movie of the same name.
Tang plays a Beijing veterinarian named Fang Yuan (“Square Circle” in English; a nod to producer Feng Xiaogang’s style of dry humor), who is about to marry a nice but boring dentist. A few days before the wedding, Fang Yuan answers a call from Song Kunming, an old classmate of her fiancé. Song is calling with apologies because he has to go to Italy and won’t be able to attend the festivities. The call leaves Fang Yuan gobsmacked because not one but two fortunetellers have told her that the love of her life is named Song Kunming. Throwing caution to the wind, Fang Yuan decides to chase her destiny and flies to Italy with her friend Li Xiaotang (Su Yan) in tow.
Once in Italy, Fang Yuan and Xiaotong track Song Kunming down at a local restaurant but before Fang Yuan is able to introduce herself to him, she gets into some trouble with a flock of over-enthusiastic soccer fans. Just as things are about to break bad, Fang Yuan is rescued by a handsome Chinese man (Liao Fan) who happens to be called, you guessed it, Song Kunming. A magical night in Milan ensues and Fang Yuan soon finds herself in her hotel room with Kunming but, as they are about to do the deed, Kunming confesses that he is not Song Kunming – he’s actually local antiques dealer Feng Dali. Irate at Dali’s deception, Fang Yuan kicks him out and abruptly ends what was once an enchanted evening.
The next morning, Dali returns with news that he spent the night asking around about Song Kunming and learned that Kunming is headed to Florence. Dali offers to escort Fang Yuan and Xiaotong there, ostensibly as an act of contrition but, in actuality, he wants another shot at wooing Fang Yuan. Fang Yuan accepts after Xiaotang points out that Dali isn’t all that bad because he revealed his true identity when he and Fang Yuan were about to have sex and not after. Will Fang Yuan finally meet her destiny in Florence? Or will Dali’s use of Mike McD’s “hang around and hope something good happens” strategy be successful?
Only You begins with Fang Yuan breaking the fourth wall, lounging on a couch sleepily plotsplaining her situation to the audience. The lethargic opening sets a lackadaisical tone that carries all the way through to an unconscionably lazy ending. Conversations are low key and characters are underdeveloped. Apart from a scene during the meet-cute sequence where Dali mistakes Fang Yuan’s petside manner for the bedside manner of a pediatrician, Only You barely registers a pulse.
Storytelling is plodding, moving from scene to scene and location to location. One minute, Fang Yuan slaps away one of Dail’s advances while sitting in a cafe across the street from the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The next minute, with no connection to or momentum from the previous scene, Fang Yuan and Dali are out in the countryside making goo goo eyes at one another while playing with their shadows against an ancient rock formation. It is as if the filmmakers thought Tang Wei’s charm and the Italian setting were enough so they didn’t have to do anything else.
Granted, Tang Wei’s cinematic charms are considerable and she does her best to carry the film. Tang is capably coquettish when she needs to be and fiery when the occasion calls for it. The filmmakers do her no favors, however. as the languid opening scene taints Fang Yuan with a hint of “spoiled princess”. Here is a beautiful woman living in a pretty decent flat in Beijing with a good job engaged to another professional. Yet, she’s lazing on a couch in a state of ennui complaining that her life still isn’t good enough. Not the best way to introduce the heroine of your story. Later on, the film is so passive with its storytelling and character-building that it’s hard to discern the motivations for Fang Yuan’s actions. The only conclusion the viewer can draw is that she does the things she does because the movie wants it so.
The same fate befalls Liao Fan. The actor is perhaps best known for his award-winning performance in Black Coal, Thin Ice, and one could argue that an actor who played a quiet, sullen ex-cop in his most famous role is a poor fit for a romantic comedy. Ge You types, guys who use their personalities to win over women – they’re the ones you want to play your lead. Apart from a few scenes during the “magical night in Milan sequence”, the chemistry between Liao and Tang Wei is mostly flat with Liao, disappointingly, showing little spark after Dali comes clean about his identity. However, Liao ably does what the film calls for him to do so it’s hard to tell if his lack of chemistry with Tang Wei is due to miscasting or if the script just doesn’t give him anything to work with.
In his famous Italian opera, La Forza del Destino, Giuseppe Verdi tells a tragic tale of the formidable power of destiny. The only way to overcome it is through sheer force of will and personality. Don’t let circumstances dictate your fate, determine your own fate by dictating the circumstances. The production team behind Only You, director Zhang Hao, writer Zhao Shuo and producer Feng Xiaogang did far too little to affect the outcome of their film. Characters are not as compelling as they should be. Instead of building momentum to a moving, romantic finish, the story meanders alongside the Italian countryside to an end where, quite frankly, the filmmakers abrogate their responsibility to come up with a resolution for their film.
Maybe the filmmakers thought destino gave them Tang Wei as their lead and a budget to shoot on location in Italy so, naturally, destino will give them a good movie. Or maybe rookie director Zhang Hao and newbie writer Zhao Shuo depended on producer Feng Xiaogang to call the shots but Feng was busy working on other things so Zhang and Zhao stood around and waited like the Cleveland Cavalier role players wait for LeBron James to make a move on offense. Who knows? It’s telling that Feng Xiaogang gets the hammer in the title credits and not Zhang Hao. One thing is for certain, only fans of Tang Wei and people who enjoy lush shots of the Italian landscape will get something out of Only You. For everyone else, they won’t need a fortune teller to tell them that seeing Only You should not be in their destiny.
(Sanney Leung, 12/2015)