Located in central China along the Yangtze River, the megacity of Chongqing has, among others, three claims to fame. One, hot pot, specifically of the spicy Sichuan variety. Two, bomb shelters, a legacy of the city’s status as China’s temporary fallback capital during World War II. Three, gangsters–who had a hard time under the leadership of party boss Bo Xilai (who himself was later convicted of corruption in one of the highest-level cases in recent Chinese memory). Released this April, the film Chongqing Hot Pot combines all three of these elements to tell an action-packed story with distinct local flavor.
At the movie’s center are three former classmates: Liu Bo, Xu Dong, and Four Eyes. Together, they run a hot pot restaurant located in a former underground bomb shelter. However, business is not good and, to make matters worse, Liu Bo owes money to local gangsters. To attract more clientele, the three decide to make an illegal underground extension of their restaurant. In the process, they accidentally dig into a financial company’s RMB-filled vault. They’ve struck it rich… but will they take the money?
No, decides Liu Bo. But they still need to patch up the intrusion before the authorities discover their illegal digging, and that requires someone to stay behind in the vault to seal the patch. To solve this dilemma, Liu Bo approaches Yu Xiaohui, a former female classmate who works in the financial company, for help. Though the group–now four strong with Yu–concocts a noble scheme, they must contend with others who have their eyes on the vault. Life for the foursome becomes quite… complicated.
There are many moving parts to the plot; enough to maintain suspense and just shy of making things too complicated. Chongqing Hot Pot deploys many standard elements of a caper film–masked intrusions, copious fighting… actually, there’s a huge intensity of violence to the film. It’s nothing abnormal for a gritty action movie, though a bit above average for a caper. The action’s entertaining, but it does make the film lose out on intellect; you won’t see Ocean’s Eleven-style creative subterfuge at any point.
Despite being a caper film, Chongqing Hot Pot includes a pretty standard Chinese “My Old Classmate” style romantic subplot. It’s not out of place, but after seeing so many “old classmates” rediscover reach other in Chinese movie after Chinese movie after Chinese movie after Chinese movie, you begin to wonder why someone hasn’t made a Tantan (China’s Tinder clone) for former classmates in order to cash in on this trend (come to think of it, why the hell am I still writing reviews instead of building this app).
Action and romance aside, Chongqing Hot Pot is novel in its heavy use of Sichuan dialect for dialog. For those unfamiliar with China, the Sichuan region (which includes Chongqing) has a distinct Mandarin phonology that makes everyday speech sound remarkably different from Standard Mandarin. Over the past few decades, the Chinese central government has discouraged the use of local dialects in media to linguistically unify the country — so it’s quite surprising to see an officially sanctioned movie have 80%+ of its dialog in Sichuanese.
Overall, in language, setting, and characters, Chongqing Hot Pot is a highly localized version of story elements that have origins in other areas–Chinese tragi-romances, “break into the vault” capers. It’s a decently entertaining piece, though memorable only for its Chongqing milieu, a refreshing escape from the dominance of Beijing and Shanghai in Chinese film.
Chongqing Hot Pot (Chinese: 火锅英雄)–Dialog in Sichuanese with limited Standard Mandarin. Directed by Yang Qing. First released April 2016. Running time 1hr 36min. Starring Chen Kun, Bai Baihe, Qin Hao, and Yu Entai.