The golden rule of hot pot is to throw in a hodge-podge of tasty ingredients and hope for the best. Having said that, nothing will ever cook well if you add to much to the pot. Simmering from a slow start, Qing Yang’s Chongqing Hot Pot (火锅英雄) boil into overdrive, as elements of romance, action and screwball caper comedy compete for screentime, ultimately making it a jack of all trades but master of none.
Three hapless high school friends, Liu Bo (Chen Kun), Xu Dong (Qin Hao) and Four Eyes (Yu Entai) own a cave hot pot restaurant in the inland city of Chongqing, a hub known for its fiery cuisine and underground bunkers dating from the Japanese invasion during World War II. With the business a failure and Liu Bo having run up a gambling debt with local gangster Mr. Seven (Chen Nuo), the trio need to sell the restaurant, and fast. However, when an illegal DIY expansion effort leads them to accidentally tunnelling their way into the local bank vault, their path no longer seems so clear cut. They decide to concoct a plan with the help of their old school friend Yu Xiaohui (Baihe Bai), now a disgruntled employee at the bank.
The film is intriguing from the get go and at first glance, very reminiscent of Ocean’s Eleven. One of Weibo’s top word of mouth films prior to its release in China in early April, it’s a premise guaranteed to reel the viewer in. However, Yang is unable to exploit the momentum of the story and instead weighs it down with an overwrought romantic subplot between Yu Xiaohui and Liu Bo, who she has had a crush on since their student days. It feels like an interruption of what has potential to be a tight, more consistently paced story. A final fight scene between the unlucky friends and Chongqing gangs also becomes needlessly long and feels messy, despite excellent choreography and absurdly whimsical orchestral background music, similar to scenes from the recent Kingsman.
The film is reined in occasionally (but not completely) by moments of brilliant suspense and high tension, as well as flashes of humour. Two comedic standout character were Liu Bo’s endearing chain-smoking grandfather (Tang Zuchui) and his friend Xu Dong, a stingy coward frustrated by his nagging wife. However (much to my chagrin) Yang decides to dedicate more time to Liu Bo and Yu Xiaohui’s backstory. Viewers also catch insightful glimpses of Chongqing, a gritty cross-section of metropolitan China situated on the banks of the Yangtze River. This could have been showcased further, especially considering the importance of the setting in the film’s title.
Although Chongqing Hot Pot starts off fiery, it loses focus before fizzling due to questionable creative choices. It is a serviceable fun but ultimately leaves the viewer unsatisfied at its conclusion.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Chongqing Hot Pot is screening nationwide at Village, Event and Hoyts Cinemas. For more information see China Lion Film.