Jia Lang writes, directs and stars in this blockbuster drama about an overweight woman who turns to boxing

Yolo c Sony


Source: Sony Pictures


Dir. Jia Ling. China. 2024. 129mins

In 2021, writer-director-star Jia Ling’s sentimental time travel comedy Hi, Mom stormed a Lunar New Year box office that was expected to be dominated by Detective Chinatown 3, racking up $848 million and becoming the highest grossing film by a solo female director until Barbie (2023). While Hi, Mom sprang from Jia’s own background, mixing elements of her mother’s life story with a sketch she conceived for a television competition, her second feature YOLO (’You Only Live Once’) is a remake of the 2014 Japanese indie100 Yen Love by Masaharu Take, and stars Jia herself as a directionless woman who finds a new lease of life in boxing.

Mixed messages concerning body image anxiety could hamper its cross-cultural appeal.

The original film boasted a searing performance from Sakura Ando as a socially withdrawn young woman who finds purpose through boxing, and played as an anecdotal character study before breaking out the gloves. Jia’s version similarly shifts around the midpoint, but YOLO is a broad localisation which trades in crude humour and is often so condescending towards its put-upon protagonist that any eventual uplift factor rings rather hollow.

In an especially competitive Lunar New Year at Mainland China’s multiplexes that saw reduced ticket prices spur record attendance, YOLO has handily fended off other contenders for the box office crown with a running total of $440 million. Although a massive hit by any standard, it isn’t quite showing the staying power of Hi, Mom, with Zhang Yimou’s legal comedy-drama Article 20 emerging as the top post-holiday choice amongst adult audiences.

This is in part due to controversy generated by the film’s extreme depiction of weight loss: Jia shed over 50kg during the one-year production schedule, a gruelling process shown in end credits which see the usually bubbly comedian sobbing through an intensive CrossFit program. YOLO has been acquired for global distribution by Sony, but mixed messages concerning body image anxiety could hamper its cross-cultural appeal.

Still living at home, overweight 30-something college graduate Du Leying (Jia) is under-motivated until an argument with her sister Du Ledan (Zhang Xiaofei) over the right to inherit the family property causes her to move out. Finding employment at a barbecue restaurant, Leying falls for boxer Hao Kun (Lei Jiayin) who coaches at a neighbourhood gym. Following their painfully awkward first semi-date at a park, she devotes herself to his career. 

Leying’s bid for independence is a case of one step forward, two steps back. Hao Kun is questionable boyfriend material as he has his own self-esteem issues, while she is coaxed by her family into making a humiliating appearance in a reality TV show. Hitting rock bottom, Leying realises that boxing may provide the drastic change that she sorely needs to get her life on track.

YOLO repeats the main plot points of 100 Yen Love, but this version eschews the washed-out, hand-held aesthetic of the freewheeling original in favour of the colourful palette commonly found in feelgood studio comedies. The first half finds Jia very much playing to her fanbase with a variation on the offbeat, well-meaning yet hapless persona cultivated through the New Year Gala television sketches that made her a household name.

There are melancholic interludes as Jia not only establishes Leying’s cycle of shame by having her compulsively snack around late-night street food markets, but also points to a desperate need to please others regardless of personal discomfort. To maintain a bouncy comedic rhythm, she tries to raise laughs from Leying’s naivety and size with many of these jokes feeling forced or verging on ill-judged laceration.

As an unabashed star showcase, YOLO forsakes the observational quality of 100 Yen Love, which stemmed from the protagonist’s exchanges with co-workers and customers in her convenience store job. Nonetheless, there are affectionate turns from Zhao Haiyan and Zhang Qi as Leying’s parents, while Zhang Xiaofei and Xu Jun Cong enliven the stereotypical roles of the scheming sister and sketchy boss. Most crucially, the against-type casting of the eminently affable Lei as a thoroughly selfish sadsack pays off in terms of eliciting a smidgen of sympathy from Hao Kun’s disillusionment arc while still withholding forgiveness for his callous behaviour.

Although not a fully-fledged boxing film, the gym sequences and final amateur bout are energetically shot by cinematographer Michael Liu. Real-life boxer Zhang Guiling has a raw presence as Leying’s ferocious opponent. In addition, a training montage uses Bill Conti’s iconic Rocky theme and YOLO clearly wants to embrace the Italian Stallion’s philosophy of “It ain’t about how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” Sadly, the film’s best intentions are undermined by emphasising the central physical transformation in a manner that celebrates thinness over strength, and thereby endorses the pursuit of conformity rather than empowerment.

Production companies: New Century Pictures, China Film Co., Alibaba Pictures, Little M Media, Big Bowl Entertainment Culture Media Co., Tencent Penguin Pictures

Producers: Li Ning, Tian Tian, Zhou Xiuqing, Zhang Wen

International distribution: Sony Pictures

Screenplay: Sun Jibin, Liu Honglu, Jia Ling, Guo Yupen, Bu Yu

Editing: Zhou Xiaolin 

Cinematography: Michael Liu

Music: Fei Peng

Main csast: Jia Ling, Lei Jiayin, Zhang Xiaofei, Zhao Haiyan, Zhang Qi, Xu Jun Cong, Bu Yu, Zhang Guiling