Only You Alone International Film Festival Rotterdam review

★★★

Directed by #ZhouZhou

Starring: #YunChi

Film review by Nathanial Eker


An introverted and often powerful character study, Only You Alone boasts an endearing simplicity. In addition to a loose cultural examination, director Zhou Zhou forces a voyeuristic gaze at the brutality of epileptic seizures, examining the condition’s life crippling effect through drawn out episodes, without need for music or editing. It’s difficult, however, to ascertain the exact direction of this melancholy analysis. Our lead’s plight to overcome adversity is indisputably compelling, yet beyond a rejection of her life at present, the audience is seemingly given the cold shoulder in terms of her ultimate fate.


Chi Li lives a lonely existence. She has no contact with her parents, having been raised by her recently passed Grandfather, with whom she was exceptionally close. Living in the traditional culture of north east China, she’s not only unable to take responsibility for her beloved guardian’s funeral, she also faces constant romantic rejection due to her epilepsy. She spends her days mourning her past life as a dancer, whilst holding down a job at a local cinema named Perfect Life. The irony of the name doesn’t go to waste.


As an examination of north-eastern Chinese culture as well as an in-depth character study, Only You Alone excels. Zhou utilises a subjective narration, definitively aligning us with Chi Li. Her plight for normalcy is as endearing as it is heart-breaking, and through an excellent performance by Yun Chi (the film’s co-writer), we firmly understand her armoured existence. Hope does appear in the form of an interested colleague, only for the boy’s overprotective mother to reinforce every negative attribute that Chi feels about herself; she’s (in her mind) burdensome, unattractive, and unfeasible as a bride. This brave stance against the norms of Chinese culture presents a strong, defiant woman, unwilling to let life defeat her; even her short haircut seems like an act of rebellion.


Zhou matches the simple beauty of Chi with simple filmmaking. The camera rarely leaves her side and seldom changes angle or framing, giving it a consistent, earnest appeal. Music too plays a part in Chi’s despair, as a simple yet haunting melody underpins every traumatic event with a recollective reverence. That said, it slightly overstays its welcome, as the composer neglects any variation in favour of reusing the same piece time and again. A leitmotif is one thing, but some form of diversification is inevitably essential.


While ambiguity is an old friend of art cinema, this particular ending feels too inconclusive to be wholly satisfying. (Spoilers from here). Chi’s attempt to recapture herself via dance demonstrates a moment of pure catharsis, as the combination of excellence from director and performer captures a moment of true desperation and hopelessness, culminating in a violent seizure that holds for an uncomfortable stanza. However, the film’s climax leaves us with an open-ended conclusion. Knowing it’ll likely incite an episode, Chi decides to ride a theme park attraction, with every swing caught in unnervingly tense detail across one long take. She appears to resist, yet her ultimate fate is unknown. Is this a cry for help, or another internal stand from an unrelentingly brave woman? Has she won this battle or will this be her end? We’re given no answers, and instead must decide Chi’s fate ourselves.


Only You Alone provides both a heart-breaking look at human determination as well as the customs of another culture in an overbearingly upsetting manner. Yet, it simultaneously impresses a willingness to continue, to embrace internal strength and carry on in spite of every damming complication life might throw you. Despite these good intentions and an exceptional lead performance, poor pacing and a script that doesn’t quite hit the emotional beats that it should, leave us wanting more in some places and far less in others. Still, as an analysis of the struggles of living with both epilepsy and a restrictive culture, Only You Alone more than hits its mark.



#NathanialEker #IFFR #IFFR2020