The Chinese crime caper “Chongqing Hot Pot” is a gas for the first 20 minutes but can’t keep its tasty elements sizzling the whole way through. Nicely set up with a quartet of likable amateurs colliding with a professional heist crew during a bank robbery, “Hot Pot” loses focus with sloppy sentimentality and heavy-duty violence that dilutes the story’s early charm. The end result is entertaining enough if not particularly memorable. Name stars Chen Kun (“Flying Swords of Dragon Gate”) and Bai Baihe (“Monster Hunt”) will attract plenty of local viewers and but staying power in offshore territories appears less encouraging. After co-opening the Hong Kong fest pic launched simultaneously in China and U.S. on April 1. “Hot Pot” bagged a whopping $28 million in first four days on local turf and posted solid per-screen figures during its opening week in North America.
Helming a feature for the first time since his promising 2009 debut, “One Night in Supermarket,” writer-director Yang Qing sets the ball rolling in grand style. On a rainy day in downtown Chongqing a gang of masked robbers led by an unnamed boss (Wang Yanglin) march into a bank and empty the vault without a hitch. The plan goes belly-up when a motorcycle cop hears walkie-talkie messages coming from the getaway driver’s van. While searching for an alternate escape route one of the gang spots a hole in the rear of the vault. At this point the camera plunges into the void and swoops through a subterranean maze while voice-over narration informs viewers that Chongqing is famous for hot pot restaurants and a huge network of underground passages and bomb shelters.
The eye-catching subterrestrial sequence eventually leads to a flashback set in a bunker that’s been converted into a failed hot pot restaurant, whose proprietors are longtime buddies Liu Bao (Chen Kun), Xu Dong (Qin Hao) and Four Eyes (Yu Entai). Desperate to sell their disastrous enterprise, the boys have resorted to hiring customers to impress potential buyers. Needing to increase floor space to snare a sale, the trio start jackhammering without permits and accidentally wind up in the bank vault.
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In a neat reversal of expectations, the lads don’t take the money and run. The plan is to cover up their unauthorized digging by repairing the hole. The tricky part is getting a team member in and out of the premises during business hours. As luck would have it an old school friend, shy girl Yu Xiaohui (Bai Baihe), works at the bank and is prepared to help. Sick of being treated like dirt by supervisor Kuang (Song Wenxin) and bitchy co-worker Miss Zhang (Xia Tian), Yu is swept up by an appealing burst of confidence and suggests they go one step further and actually rob the joint.
Yu explains her clever master plan in a fantasy sequence worthy of any top-shelf heist pic. Unfortunately this also reps the film’s high point. The remaining two-thirds suffers from abrasive tonal shifts and pedestrian pacing while various backstories and sub-plots come to light.
The film’s central performers are appealing and energetic, but their characters aren’t given much shading. Hopeless gambler Liu is deeply in debt to nasty local crook Mister Seven (Chen Nuo) and has a chain-smoking sick grandpa (Tang Zuchui) to look after. Xu’s given a nagging offscreen wife to contend with, while all that’s known about Four Eyes is that he’s sick of it all and plans to relocate to Beijing. Flashbacks to the trio’s happy teenage days as an aspiring boy band contribute little. Worst of all is Yu’s memory of a love letter she wrote to Liu all those years ago, bogging down the narrative anytime it’s mentioned, while Yu and Liu’s rekindled romance fails to register as much more than perfunctory.
There’s no shortage of very well choreographed and slickly shot action once the quartet collides with the masked robbers, hordes of cops and Mister Seven’s mean-looking crew on the day of the robbery. Having skipped along as a pacy caper with zippy shots of comedy in the early running, the film loses its sense of humor and indulges in frequently brutal violence that’s way out of kilter with what’s come before. Despite such diminishing returns, the basic likeability of the main players gives audiences just enough to hang onto by the time dust, blood and broken bones have settled.
Visuals are excellent. The moody lighting and kinetic camerawork of co-cinematographers Bai Yuxia and Liao 4wa brings an appropriately sweaty quality to proceedings. Driving, psychedelia-tinged prog-rock score by Peng Fei and Zhao Yingjun works a treat, and Lin Mu’s terrific production design could easily inspire viewers to seek out an underground hot pot dining experience should travels take them to Chongqing.