Three friends run a failing Chongqing hot pot restaurant constructed out of a disused underground bomb shelter. When they attempt to make an illegal extension of the restaurant into an adjacent shelter, they accidentally knock a hole into the vault of a bank down the road.
Yang Qing’s 2016 film Chongqing Hotpot is nominally a comedy, but to be honest it spends an awful lot of its running time being a relatively serious combination of action and drama. The violence, when it occurs, is surprisingly blunt and rather bloody. Tonally the film wanders all over the place, either unsure if it should be funny, warm, touching, confronting or cynical or simply disinterested in being pinned down to a single style of movie. To an extent the film’s vibrant use of colour and constant energy help to paper over the cracks, but this haphazard structure does stop the film from being as good as it could be.
There is a strong sense of English filmmaker Danny Boyle about much of Chongqing Hotpot, particularly through the bold use of colour and the immensely stylish manner in which several of the film’s key scenes play out. The film begins with a bank robbery, one shot and timed close to perfection, but the subsequent film then struggles a little to match its momentum. The opening scene does reveal a hole in the floor of a Chongqing bank vault, but the revelation as to how the hole got there in the first place lacks a similar intensity. While the film does loop back to a tense siege in the bank against the city police, the sections in the middle do not compare very well.
Part of the problem with the film’s middle section is just how tired some of the storylines and characters feel. There is Liu Bao (Chen Kun), a problem gambler who strikes up a romance with former schoolmate Yu Xiaohui (Bai Baihe). There is Xu Dong (Qin Hao), harried by an unseen wife over the telephone and unwilling to fully commit to operating the restaurant into which he has invested. Then there is Four Eyes (Yu Entai), the meek nerdy cook who holds the three men together while running the business. The actors uniformly play their roles well, but they are all playing to stereotypes. When Bao finds himself owing a few hundred thousand yuan to local gangster Brother Seven (a pretty entertaining Chen Nuo), the cliche counter simply smashes through the roof. The film’s climax suffers similar tonal problems to the rest of the film: what begins as a deadly serious siege and improvised sting operation shifts unexpectedly into quite dark violence before descending into a particularly brutal and farcical mass fight scene.
With measured expectations Chongqing Hotpot is a pretty entertaining film: it looks great, and the cast work the script to the best of their ability. It is just a shame that with a slightly more original and innovative screenplay, an enjoyable caper could have been a really great film.