EXPECTATIONS: Absolutely none. But it does have Bai Baihe. =)
REVIEW: Bad luck. We all get it some time or another and on the day I saw this film, I certainly got my fair share of it. To be honest, I had no intention of seeing this film at all. That day, I was meant to see an early screening of Midnight Special, directed by Jeff Nichols, but due to errands finishing later than expected, lousy phone GPS/reception, getting lost in new surroundings, I missed the screening and to think the bad luck ended, I even forgot a simple rule of not bringing outside drinks into the cinema, wasting $5. Not wanting to waste a whole afternoon, I decided to watch Chongqing Hot Pot (without my refreshing and quenchable drink). Despite knowing the cast, I had no idea what the story was about and went in without any preconceptions or expectations of any kind. Little did I know, the characters in the film had a lot of their fair share of bad luck and because of that, I related to their plight. And to add the silver lining to the equation, I enjoyed the small-scale film.
The film starts off in a very rainy day, and a bunch of people are doing a bank robbery, amusingly wearing masks of characters in Journey to the West. The robbery goes off quite well, despite their getaway driver getting caught by the police in a serendipitous fashion. But when one of the robbers finds something in a safe, we find the link between the bank to the four leads of the film. Chen Kun plays Liu Bo, a down-on-his-luck young man who lives with his worrying mother and his senile grandfather. He has a massive gambling debt and is a co-owner of a hot pot restaurant build inside an old bomb shelter. His two co-owners/high school friends, the impulsive Xu Dong (Qin Hao) and the dopey, yet loyal Four Eyes (Yu Entai) are in dire situations himself, with Xu Dong being henpecked by his wife over the phone, while Four Eyes is planning to move back to Beijing. As the three are digging through their cave/restaurant for an extension, they accidentally dig a plot hole into a bank vault filled with
red pockets money. Seeing it as their exit strategy of their plight, they ironically have to plan an exit strategy of getting away with the money. Coincidentally (or is it fate), they find out that an old high school friend/potential flame, Yu Xiaohui (Bai Baihe) works at the bank and they collude with her on the heist. But does the heist go as planned with gangsters chasing Liu Bo on his massive debts, the police on their trail and a weight of bad luck on their shoulders?
Despite being marketed as a heist film, it is really more about the camaraderie between the four leads, and the cast are great with their archetypal and underwriten roles. Chen Kun, whom I have always seen as a pretty boy and nothing more, cuts a surprisingly world-weary appearance and does elicit sympathy as Liu Bo. Bai Baihe (whom I have had a crush on since Love Is Not Blind) is great as Yu Xiaohui, as she gives the romantic backstory more power than it really had and she makes it quite easy to see why Liu Bo does what he does in the film. Qin Hao does not have much to do as Xu Dong, but he makes the most of what he has and he delivers a few zingers that were quite funny, whether it was making fun of Chinese accents or always asking Buddha for help. Yu Entai gets a few touching moments as Four Eyes, especially when he helps his friends get out trouble or when he starts to feel nostalgic of the high school days.
Director Yang Qing has crafted a genre film here, but it has a few inventive touches that make it stand out from the pack. A healthy dose of dark humour is peppered throughout the film like a simple action of picking up a cleaver but only ending up pulling the handle. Or the use of the Journey to the West masks that have a massive payoff in the climax that perfectly exemplifies the characters. The heist itself is turned on its head due to how the characters collide and it is marvelous to watch. The musical score was also pleasant to hear and the use of Air by Bach was also a nice touch that adds a melancholy to the characters, despite their questionable actions. I also loved the cinematography, especially when it is set in the night-time, when all the neon lights shine and gives the environment a post-norish feel, similar to South Korean films like Oldboy or even the recent Chinese film-noir, Black Coal Thin Ice.
While the cast and production values are great, it is the script and some of the directorial choices that gives the film a sour taste at times. For example, the pacing in the first and parts of the second act is really slow at times, especially when it story goes through the romance, and that is quite a problem considering that the film is only 94 minutes. It can also be quite predictable at times, especially at the end of the climax. Let’s just say that it definitely is not the first time that I have seen the solution and fate of a particular character being dealt that way, especially within a China film. It is quite disappointing that the predictability happens due to China-censorship, especially when the heist itself is actually quite unpredictable and has palpable tension. There are also the tone shifts, which can be quite abrupt, as it can go from cheeky to romantic to downright brutal at times. Plus, the use of a love letter in the film comes off as cheesy, but hey, aren’t all high school romances like that? And it is for Bai Baihe, so I am already down for it.
Despite those flaws, Chongqing Hot Pot is a hearty meal with enough spice and meat to savour most audiences out there. On an irrelevant(?) note, did this film foretell a new cast for another Journey to the West film adaptation? Because if the filmmakers did, I would definitely flock to it.
The cast are more than capable in their archetypal roles
Inventive touches in the story
Musical score and editing are above reproach
Tone shifts may irk some
Supporting characters are underwritten
China-censorship adds predictability to the story
Cast: Chen Kun, Bai Baihe, Qin Hao, Yu Entai
Director: Yang Qing
Screenwriter: Yang Qing