by Jay Seaver
There are bits of "Chongqing Hot Pot" that are clever, nifty, and well-executed enough that one almost wishes that filmmaker Yang Qing had a little bit more room to maneuver than he has in a contemporary Chinese crime comedy. He occasionally asks the audience to swallow a bit more than is reasonable (though what caper doesn't?), but manages to miss most of the places where he could slip up, and that's pretty good for this sort of movie.The Chinese city of Chongqing, we are informed, is famous for many hot-pot restaurants, but also has a large number of sealed-off bomb shelters. They intersect in "hot pot caves", as savvy entrepreneurs expand into the empty spaces. One restaurant's three partners - unhappily-married Xu Dong (Qin Hao), deep-in-gambling-debt Liu Bo (Chen Kun), and unfortunately-nicknamed Four-Eyes (Yu Entai) - are doing that with an eye toward selling quickly. When they break into a chamber that also connects to the vault of the Chengjiang Business Bank, the smart thing to do would be to inform the police, but when they learn that middle-school classmate Yu Xiaohui (Bai Baihe) works there and is none too satisfied with the situation, possibilities open up.
"The ingredients for a good heist could be brought to more of a boil."
You might argue that this film quite literally has a huge plot hole, in that it actually relies on there being a hole in the floor of the bank's vault but no motion detectors or video surveillance, meaning that Four-Eyes can just stumble in with nobody noticing. The film also relies on a pretty massive coincidence, though to be fair, heist movies generally aren't very interesting unless something unexpected happens. Of course, heists are also generally best when everyone involved has a part to play, and the guys are rather interchangeable in terms of the plot. It doesn't necessarily have to be that way, but Xu Dong and Four-Eyes are either a bit underwritten or have their stories pared down to keep the film moving quickly, so we don't get much of a handle on them.
Yang does a nice job of presenting the story with style, though. The conventional bank robbery that opens the film is executed in nifty fashion, moving from being kind of amusing as the getaway driver has to deal with being parked in a tow zone to being legitimately tense inside as the robbers look creepy in their "Journey to the West" masks. There's a sly, winking energy as Xiaohui lays out her plan with cuts to the action, and when things actually start happening in the last act, Yang barrels forward with tons of energy. It's a nice-looking movie as well - though the Chongqing setting is important, the city itself is often seen as distorted in a mirror or seeming to vanish in the smog, kind of feeling small-time.
Though set up as an ensemble piece, the focus is mostly on Liu Bo and Yu Xiaohui, which isn't a bad decision; they're played by the film's two biggest stars with the best chemistry. Chen Kun has the most to do as Liu, dealing with his partners, Xiaohui, gangsters, and a cigarette-sneaking grandfather, and he's got an easy charm throughout, and turning things up a notch when the action picks up. Bai Baihe doesn't show up immediately, but she makes the most of her scenes, capturing Xiaohui's downtrodden situation at first glance and then letting her shine when the time comes to take charge. The whole group plays off each other well, handling Yang's sly humor and frantic pace.There are, of course, limits to where Yang can go with this movie; crime can not pay in Chinese cinema. He makes an enjoyable enough caper in large part by finding ways to incorporate and work around that basic requirement, although one that has trouble being as charming or thrilling as it wants to be all the way through.
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originally posted: 04/10/16 13:59:41