Nothing Can't Be Undone by a Hotpot (Ding Sheng, 2024)

Nothing Can't Be Undone by a Hotpot (Ding Sheng, 2024)

Ding Sheng’s latest film, his first since A Better Tomorrow 2018, his lamentable update of the John Woo classic, is the second Mainland Chinese caper/heist film with the word “hotpot” in the title that was distributed in North America by China Lion Films that I’ve seen. Chongqing Hotpot came out in 2016 and was one of the better Mainland genre films of the time, with a clever, twisty plot and a real sense of place, one we don’t usually get to see in a Chinese cinema that tends to flatten out locations in favor of a geographic and cultural homogeneity (something that has only become more and more the case as Mainland cinema has exploded in production volume in the intervening years). Its director, Yang Qing, doesn’t appear to have directed a movie since then, or at least doesn’t have any imdb credits beyond it and a 2009 feature called One Night in Supermarket (sic). 

Ding Sheng is a more familiar quantity, or at least he was until 2018, known primarily for directing late-late period Jackie Chan films. I’ve only seen one of those, and while Railroad Tigers had some admirably well put together sequences, the film (and Ding himself, presumably) was weighed down by the necessary Jackieness of it all. Ding’s talents were less visible in A Better Tomorrow 2018, a film which never really clicked either conceptually or dramatically, but still had some solid craft behind it. 

Nothing Can’t Be Undone by a Hotpot, has little in common with either of those two films, however. Four members of a WeChat group meet up in an little opera theatre/mahjong parlor that appears to be falling apart. The owner of the building enlists the other three (none of who know each other) in a scheme to rob a local official, one whom he’d bribed to prevent his opera house from being demolished but who instead pocketed the money. The heist goes reasonably well, but when the four reconvene they find they have two suitcases: one of which has a whole lot of money, the other has the apparently dead body of the official. The bulk of the movie then involves a lengthy series of unmaskings (occasionally literal) as each member of the gang turns out to be more than they appear, and each has some relation to the victim.

Almost all of this plays out on one set, backstage at the opera, with only a handful of scenes shot in the victim’s apartment, most of them flashbacks. I don’t know if the reason for Ding’s six year hiatus from movie-making was COVID related, but this film’s minimal cast and sets (and yes, penchant for masks) has all the signs of a pandemic production. But it all works surprisingly well, with a new twist or turn to the plot every ten minutes or so and some solid work by the cast (especially Yang Mi (from the Tiny Times series) as the group’s one woman and Yu Qian, as the house owner) keeping things lively. Ding’s ever-moving and quick-cutting camera for once actually helps as well. A source of annoyance in A Better Tomorrow 2018, and initially distracting here, it gradually becomes less notable as the interpersonal dramas play out, working instead to simply open up the cramped space of the single set.

As the characters reveal their secrets, the movie becomes less of a heist or suspense movie, and more a riff on the breakdown of social, familial, and generational bonds in the face or greed and corruption. It walks a thin line between damning the system and acquiescing to it. The official is corrupt and will be punished, we’re told in the now-obligatory title card that clears up any moral or legal gray areas for the censors, but the people he is really afraid of, more than his ostensible attackers and potential murderers, are government agents so shadowy that their department can’t even be named. At times, and I can’t believe I’m saying this about a Ding Sheng movie, the film recalls Fruit Chan’s masterpiece A Midnight After in its group of everyday normal individuals forced to work out for themselves a system of justice: how to share the risk and the wealth, how to dispose of a body, what crimes can be forgiven and what cannot, and if they can’t, how are they to be punished.

Unlike Chan’s film though, Nothing Can’t Be Undone by a Hotpot finds a solution, one which neatly explains all the mysteries and closes up all the dangling plot-holes. It presents a world that is ultimately comprehensible, where justice does prevail and bad people are punished and good people, if they do bad things, serve their time but are ultimately rewarded. But it takes a long time to get there, and only a dazzling chain of coincidence and chance, guided by mysterious forces, possibly the spirits of ancestors, possibly the gods, possibly even the benevolent agents of the state, make it possible. Or maybe it's the eponymous meal that bears all the goodwill, in the same way it did in Heiward Mak's Fagara, which was also about a group of people coming together, working through their past interrelated problems (in that case a group of sisters dealing with their father's death) over communally boiled, extra spicy meats and vegetables. It's possible. The movie certainly made me hungry.