Shades of Ning Hao, Korean action thrillers, Point Break and the Hollywood heist tradition inform the latest in the lingering trend of darkly comic crime pictures from Mainland China in Yang Qing’s Chongqing Hot Pot, which opens the 40th Hong Kong International Film Festival. Polished and heavily influenced by the entirety of the genre, and the filmmakers, whose sandbox Yang is playing in, the film weaves together three disconnected stories en route to a bloody but inevitable final showdown that reveals itself about 20 minutes in. Scheduled for limited North American release on April 1, Chongqing Hot Pot should see moderate returns in its carefully chosen markets and fare much better in China (opening the same day) for its starry young cast. Elsewhere, niche distribution will remain the order of the day, though Asian-themed and larger broad-spectrum festivals will also take notice based on the strength of Yang’s 2009 crime comedy One Night in Supermarket.
Like that film, Chongqing Hot Pot is a crowd-pleaser, hitting all the right beats and loaded with stylistic conventions familiar to anyone who has seen Ning’s Crazy Stone or anything by Park Chan-wook. And also like Supermarket, Chongqing has trouble sustaining its narrative momentum after the clever, and truly suspenseful, initial setup. Often feeling like a slog, even at a scant 95 minutes (the last several of which are dedicated to sponsors and other partners), the pic’s high points are indeed high, but the filler in between is just that: filler. Yang has clearly spent many hours studying the form, and there’s a great commercial genre movie buried in there somewhere, but he has yet to contribute anything new to it. Not even the singular Southwestern location adds (or is given room to add) anything fresh to the proceedings.
An entertaining but forgettable by-the-numbers thriller.
The film begins strong. Four masked thieves waltz into a bank, rounding up the staff and customers and swiftly and systematically emptying the vault. When police spot their wheelman outside, the plan tanks and the robbers need to find another way out. While checking out the rest of the building, one finds a hole in the floor at the back of the vault. In typical in medias res fashion, the next scene flashes back in time to introduce how the hole got there.
The entire sequence is a perfectly paced, edited and scored bit of filmmaking laced with real tension that sets the bar high for the rest of the pic and raises expectations. Sadly, that’s also where writer-director Yang begins to lose control of the narrative. The three young, aspirational owners of the Cave Hot Pot restaurant, Liu Bo (Chen Kun), Xu Dong (Qin Hao) and Four Eyes (Yu Entai), friends since middle school, are hemorrhaging money and looking to sell. Liu has an elderly grandfather to care for and a gambling problem that’s got him into trouble with local gangster Brother Seven; Four Eyes is getting ready to relocate to Beijing; and Xu is saddled with a nagging wife (of course). During the course of a DIY expansion for the restaurant, the trio accidentally blasts a hole in the bank vault, bringing them face to face with a stack of problem-eradicating money. Enter former classmate and unhappy banker staffer Yu Xiaohui (Bai Baihe) and the stage is set for a heist.
The trouble with Chongqing Hot Pot is that despite its brief running time, it takes too long to bring its various threads together. Developing the friends’ backstory and hinting at unrequited love between Liu and Yu Yang brings the film to a grinding halt. The charm of pulpy crime thrillers lies in their efficiency and streamlined storytelling, an art Yang has yet to truly master. That said, there are some novel elements: Liu, Xu and Four Eyes are fundamentally decent guys who know right from wrong and who are not initially tempted to take the bank’s money, and it’s the wallflowery Yu that hatches the plan. Yang’s decision to marginalize the real thieves also refocuses the action on the core quartet, which would be welcome if there was more to their characters. The cast is game and the level of production is flawless; Liao Ni’s photography takes its lead from Korea’s best recent thrillers and the bulk of Peng Fei and Zhao Yingjun’s score (during the robbery segments) has a delicately propulsive thrum that forms a perfect complement to the visuals.
But the clichés — vicious gangster trouble, a romance that redeems the main character (gag), increasing desperation resulting in bad decisions — are laid on thick. There’s nothing wrong with convention when it’s turned on its head or masterfully incorporated. But Yang takes the easy road at every turn, and even Chongqing’s unique cityscape and culture are left on the periphery, never exerting any stylistic or narrative influence.
Venue: Hong Kong International Film Festival
Production companies: New Classics Media, CKF Pictures, Wanda Media Co.
U.S. distributor: China Lion
Cast: Chen Kun, Bai Baihe, Qin Hao, Yu Entai
Director-screenwriter: Yang Qing
Producer: Chen Kuo-Fu
Director of photography: Liao Ni
Production designer-costume designer: Lin Mu
Editor: Li Nanyi
Music: Peng Fei, Zhao Yingjun
Casting: Zhang Lian
World sales: Distribution Workshop
In Putonghua, Chongqing dialect
Not rated, 99 minutes