Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Chongqing Hot Pot: A Spicy Bank Heist

Hot Pot is generally considered comfort food, but not in the subterranean restaurant Liu Bo runs with his two school chums. Granted, they like it served spicy, a la proper Sichuan style in Chongqing, but apparently not the way “Four Eyes” simmers it up. Business is so bad, the three pals are desperate to sell-out. When they inadvertently borrow into a bank vault during an unlicensed expansion attempt, capers inevitably ensue in Yang Qing’s Chongqing Hot Pot (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Liu lives at home with his exasperated mother, his somewhat addled but still twinkling-eyed grandfather, and a mountain of gambling debts. Xu Dong is relentlessly hassled by his status-conscious wife, whereas Four Eyes is eager to try his luck in Beijing. Each could use some fast cash, but their cave-bound eatery is too small to attract a buyer. Hoping to fix that, they wind up poking their heads into the nearby bank’s vault, like Bugs Bunny.

As it just so happened, an old classmate now works at the soulless, cliquey bank. In fact, Yu Xiaohui once had a crush on Liu and vice versa, but her family relocated before either could act on their crushes. Fearing fines and citations, Liu and his pals conspire with Yu to sneak into the bank to fix the yet to be discovered hole. It is pretty safe to conclude these dudes are the decent sorts, since their big conspiracy revolves around structural repair work. However, things get drastically complicated when real gun-toting bank-robbers strike the bank at exactly the same time Liu’s Hot Pot gang were planning to run their operation.

Chongqing gives the caper movie template a clever, good-hearted twist. Yang does a lot to play with our expectations, but there is a massive third act all-hands-on-deck beatdown that is as good as any action movie released this year. Yet, the film is really all about friendship and camaraderie, becoming much like comfort food itself in its depiction of the four reunited classmates.

Having starred in Monster Hunt, the highest grossing Chinese film until the release of Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid, Bai Baihe has clearly already arrived in her home territory. However, Chongqing could be the film that really breaks her out internationally. She is terrific as Yu, conveying her sweet vulnerability, but also giving her an edge. Chen Kun brings his usual fierceness as Liu, but also develops some rather appealing chemistry with Bai. Although Four Eyes is obviously a bit of a nebbish stock character, Yu Entai still manages to scratch out some rather touching moments for him, but Qin Hao hardly makes an impression as Xu Dong, the third guy.

There are real stakes involved in Chongqing, yet despite the ruthlessness of the bad guys and the chaos of the melee, it has a surprisingly gentle vibe. Yang pulls off some smooth reversals and choreographs the capery business quite adroitly. It is a lot of good clean fun and also endearingly nostalgic. Highly recommended, Chongqing Hot Pot opens this Friday (4/1) in New York, at the AMC Empire.