The latest Chinese import to grace Seattle Screens is an absurdist thriller about trio of friends who own a failing underground (literally) restaurant and who accidentally tunnel into a nearby bank vault. After a tense prologue that recalls any number of Hong Kong gangster thrillers, men in black wearing Journey to the West masks arrive at a bank during a torrential downpour. The getaway driver has a tense run-in with a traffic cop, leading to panic in the bank as the robbers are soon surrounded and desperate for a way out. The camera tracks into the vault and discovers a hole in the ground, leading us down through a cave and into the restaurant, and back in time to the events leading up to the standoff. We’re told that the city of Chongqing (alternately “Chungking”), in southwestern China, is famous for its hot pot restaurants, and that lately people have been adapting the city’s network of caves and bomb shelters into trendy eating locales. Three old school friends have done just that, but the business is failing and they’re rapidly trying to unload it. To jack up their asking price, they try to extend the tunnel themselves, and that’s how they get into the bank. The bulk of the film revolves around their schemes to fix the hole without anyone finding out what they’ve done, while avoiding the temptation to steal the money.
To this end they elicit the help of a fourth classmate, who works at the bank. Played by Bai Baihe (on quite a role after terrific lead performances last year in Go Away, Mr. Tumor and Monster Hunt), she turns out to have once had a crush on one of the friends, played by Chen Kun (who last shared the screen with Shu Qi in Mojin: The Lost Legend). Chen has a gambling problem and owes a vast sum of money to a local gangster, who is turning to increasingly violent methods to get the debt repaid. The other two friends have problems of their own: one is henpecked by his wife (ubiquitous as a voice on his cell phone) and the other is shy and planning to move to Beijing. Together, the four come up with an elaborate scheme to fill in the hole, but before their plan can be executed, the robbery from the opening begins. As the friends try to rescue Bai from the robbery, and the gangsters come to collect on Chen’s debt, every disparate element of the film’s world clicks into place in an impressive display of bloodshed.
There exists in Asian cinema a kind of thriller that defies all Hollywood norms of plot construction. Films built upon not the taut rules of cause and effect, where every element of the film is determined by psychological necessity, but rather films built out of a dense chain of chance and coincidence. Random inevitability is an essential hallmark of Johnnie To’s films, for example, where the wildly improbable turns out to have been nothing less than the expression of a sublimely daft universe. Every individual element is necessary for the domino-construction of the plots, yet those elements are in isolation unlikely at best: a lunatic clockwork. Soi Cheang’s Accident, made for To’s Milkyway Image studio, is the most metaphysical, and metacinematic, exploration of this construction, while Kim Seong-hun’s 2014 Korean thriller A Hard Day expresses it at its mostly nihilistically cartoonish. Cheang’s SPL 2: A Time for Consequences (coming this summer to North America) finds a hopefulness in the random interconnections between people, a network of chance uniting humanity at an organic level. Chongqing Hot Pot isn’t as ambitious as any of those, content mostly to be a solid thriller, with some genuine moments of suspense and a slick contemporary visual style highlighted by bright digital colors and a gliding camera that tracks alongside and directly above its scenes of violence. The web of randomness our heroes find themselves in reaches out across the city’s underworld, and also into their past and future. Neither blackly ironic nor searchingly profound, it’s a film about fundamentally decent people struggling to get by in a frustratingly opaque world who find that while the universe is mostly arrayed against them, its inexplicable whims can also bring them together.