Yolo–the feelgood female boxing movie

Source: The Guardian (3/31/24)
Knockout success of Yolo – the feelgood female boxing movie from China
Director and star Jia Ling – who reportedly lost 50kg to make comedy that rivals Dune 2 at box office – insists ‘it’s not a diet movie, not even about boxing’
By , Senior China correspondent

Director and star Jia Ling – who reportedly lost 50kg to make comedy that rivals Dune 2 at box office – insists ‘it’s not a diet movie, not even about boxing’

In a country where cinemas are normally dominated by wolf warrior blockbusters or nationalist historical epics, the surprise hit of China’s box office in 2024 is a feelgood comedy about a woman who transforms her lacklustre life – and herself – through boxing.

Released for the lunar new year holiday on 10 February, Yolo (You Only Live Once) has become the highest grossing film of the year in China, earning more than 3.4bn yuan (£375m) in less than two months, according to the China Movie Information Network. Globally, it is second only to Dune 2.

Critics and cinemagoers are divided about whether the film, a lighthearted comedy which has drawn comparisons with Rocky, is feminist or not. It is directed by and stars Jia Ling, a well-known comedian, who reportedly lost 50kg for the role in order to perform the physical as well as mental transformation of the main character, Du Leying, sparking a debate about body image. In February, Jia wrote on Weibo: “It’s not a diet movie, it’s not even about boxing”.

But Jia’s success as a female film-maker is undoubtedly a triumph. Her first film, the 2021 semi-autobiographical comedy Hi, Mom made her the highest-grossing solo female director of all time – until Greta Gerwig took that title in 2023 with Barbie.

Jia Ling talks about her film Yolo in Los Angeles.

Jia Ling talks about her film Yolo in Los Angeles. Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

Her latest is the only film in the top 10 to be directed by a woman. Films by male directors often “make women seem scared and worried”, said Qiu Yuan, a teacher in Beijing, who saw Yolo three times in the cinema, taking her mother and a female friend along for the second and third viewings. But in Yolo, the main character wants to “become awesome”. Du’s goal “isn’t to lose weight, it’s to exercise and win”.

The film – known in Chinese as Re la guntang (Hot and spicy) – follows the life of Du, who starts out as a depressed, overweight, 30-something graduate who has withdrawn from society and lives with her parents. After an argument with her sister forces her to move out from the family home, a chance encounter with a coach at a neighbourhood boxing gym sparks a journey of self-transformation.

Whether as an artistic choice or to pass China’s strict censorship regime for film releases, Yolo keeps its focus on Du’s personal life. “A lot of unpleasant experiences happen to her, but they are all limited to the realm of her friends and family, rather than things happening because of systematic unfairness in society,” said Yu Yaqin, an independent film critic in Beijing.

But in a patriarchal society where women face many barriers in their personal and professional lives, and where overt discussions of feminism are limited, the film has struck a nerve, particularly with female cinemagoers.

Qiu said that women in China lack inspiring figures such as Jia. “In the west, there are many women who are role models. In my life, my family, my friends, there are no role models or feminists,” she said. Yolo “doesn’t say it’s a feminist film”, in part because it would be difficult for Jia to make such a statement publicly, Qiu said, “but when I take my friends who are not interested in feminism to see this film, they think little by little about how a woman can change her life through working on herself.”

Yu believes that much of the film’s success can be attributed to Jia’s fame and a curiosity among cinemagoers to see her dramatic weight loss. Jia is a familiar face on Chinese television, having risen to fame as a comedy performer in the 2010s.

Yolo “is a really successful film in commercial terms, but it is not an artistic film”, said Yu. “If this film was exactly the same but didn’t have Jia Ling, it wouldn’t be very popular.”

Sony has acquired the international distribution rights for the film, which will be released in the UK on 5 April. Some commentators have questioned whether the film’s times slapstick humour and at times crude jokes will be as successful among western audiences, especially given the fact that Jia is not well known outside China.

But in China, where an increasing number of women are choosing, like Yolo’s Du, to remain unmarried and child-free into their 30s, the film has resonated beyond Jia’s star quality. And although Yolo “is not a perfect feminist film,” said Yu, its popularity will “still encourage female directors in China, not just in film, but across the whole arts industry”.

Additional research by Chi Hui Lin

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